Good Sanctions and Bad Sanctions

Weeks before North Korea’s latest nuclear test, it was clear that the political climate surrounding North Korea policy was ready for a big shift away from honor-system diplomacy and toward tougher sanctions.  This test is likely to mean a major legislative push here in Washington — not just to punish North Korea, but to craft and enact sanctions that attack the regime’s structural weaknesses, with the intent of either coercing its disarmament or destroying it.  For all the tension that will prompt in the short term, it is the only plausible non-military path to a long-term solution.

Republicans in Congress will start by pushing to re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.  Opponents of such a move are fond of arguing that this would be be motivated by factors unrelated to terrorism, but those people either don’t know the facts or are hiding them.  It was the Bush Administration that de-listed North Korea for political reasons, in spite of North Korea’s refusal to acknowledge, end, or renounce its past and ongoing terrorism.  Opponents of re-listing North Korea should read the legal definition of “international terrorism” at 18 U.S.C. 2331, and then explain why the abduction and murder of the activist and rescuer, the Rev. Kim Dong Shik, doesn’t count.  Or the attempted assassination of defector-dissident Park Sang-Hak.  Or the attempted assassination of defector-dissident Hwang Jang-Yop.  Or all of those other poison needle assassination attempts against human rights activists North Korea’s agents were behind, whether in China or South Korea.  Or its calls for its supporters to slit Lee Myung Bak’s throat, or its threat to shell the Blue House.  Or its threat to shell the offices of newspapers that criticize the regime.  I could go on, and on.  North Korea has never sponsored more terrorism in its dreadful history than in the period since George W. Bush removed it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008.

This is only a start. I also expect to see a much broader, more comprehensive sanctions effort aimed at North Korea’s proliferation and money laundering, certainly in Congress and perhaps also from the Administration, although it’s not immediately clear how those efforts will converge.  The administration is quietly pushing its allies for stronger enforcement of existing sanctions.  After recent consultations with U.S. officials, South Korea seems to be taking U.N. Security Council resolutions and proliferation concerns more seriously.  There can be little doubt that Japan’s current government would also support such an effort.

(China is a different story.  I’ve seen a lot of speculation that China is ready to put more severe and sustained economic pressure on North Korea, but I’m still skeptical.  We underestimate the depth of China’s hostility to us, and to our interests.  The government of China won’t be persuaded to cut off North Korea, but Chinese banks and businesses can be, and that might just be enough.)

These things are good, because they put enough pressure on the regime to (1) at least retard (but not dismantle) North Korea’s weapons program, (2) make it harder for them to sell dope, counterfeit dollars, and launder money, and (3) cause long-term damage to the palace economy (whose history New Focus usefully summarizes here).  We see some evidence of this in the continuing erosion of the distribution system in Pyongyang, once the exclusive reservation of the North Korean elite, but now also the home of a growing ex-elite population.

As policymakers craft their sanctions, however, they shouldn’t lose sight of the objective — to change North Korea.  The U.S. Army isn’t going to do that, and Kim Jong Un certainly won’t.  The only people who are going to get us out of this mess are the North Koreans themselves.  They, not Kim Jong Il, are the ones we should have spent the last decade trying to “engage.” Both Republicans and Democrats tend to lose sight of this key distinction between the North Korean regime, and the more-or-less expendable 98% of its population we need to reach.  (Sure, the “core” class is estimated to be around 20-30%, but anyone can be excommunicated from it at a moment’s notice.) The majority of North Koreans had to be taught to hate us, but they learned to hate their government on their own.  That means there’s a common interest we can appeal to.

North Koreans may be hyper-nationalistic, and they may be confused and disillusioned about ideology, but they know they’re hungry.  Their nationalism — their two-minutes’-hate hostility toward us — is about all the regime still has over them.  If we want lasting change in North Korea, then, we shouldn’t give the regime an assist.

That’s why I think a law banning food aid to North Korea would be a mistake.  Yes, Congress should set clear restrictions on aid to North Korea.  Aid should never be sent in the form of cash, fuel, or rice.  All counties of North Korea must be open to humanitarian assessments and distributions, including the prison camps.  No-notice inspections should be mandatory, consistent with accepted standards worldwide.  So should nutritional surveys of recipients, which are the single most effective way to tell if food aid is getting to those who need it.

Simply banning food aid looks heartless and misguided, because it is.  This regime is using food as a weapon against its people.  If, in the unlikely event we could help North Koreans who truly need it, shouldn’t we?  Shouldn’t we also be sending that message to the whole world, especially the North Korean people?  The regime’s propaganda blames starvation on U.S. sanctions, and characterizes U.S. food aid as a victory secured through Kim Jong Il’s clever nuclear blackmail.  That is how the regime justifies such an obscene misallocation of wealth to its own people.  Laws like this play into that propaganda.

Even if reasonable restrictions on food aid — the same restrictions we’d expect in Sudan, Zimbabwe, or anywhere else — mean that no food is likely to be delivered, it’s morally and symbolically important to keep that possibility open.


  1. I wonder if being re-added to the list will finally get FIFA and the IOC to stop allowing them to benefit from participation in their respective events? One could only hope…


  2. While I have no doubt North Korea *is* still very much a state sponsor of terrorism, I don’t see them going back on the list. The actually proof of their involvement (in the context of the list, i.e. providing materiel or funds to known terrorist activity) is not solid enough. Targeted assassinations don’t really count, and despite your own interpretation of the USC that is (unfortunately) not the intention because it would put every major power in the world on the same list. Intelligence agencies do that stuff all the time, though most are probably better at concealing it.

    Also, the assertion that North Korea has never supported more terrorism than they do now is fairly ridiculous. I don’t think a few assassination attempts – horrible, to be sure – compares to the way they *blew up a passenger jet*. They still supply arms to all sorts of people who shouldn’t have them, which is just as detestable, but we can’t really prove it beyond doubt either.