A blanket trade embargo won’t help us disarm or reform North Korea

In Wednesday’s post, I wrote about Beyond Parallel’s imagery analysis pointing to a decline in cross-border trade between China and North Korea, along with the limitations of that analysis and its great potential if expanded and focused. But I also alluded to a broader policy concern about the error of equating trade volume with sanctions enforcement: that while China’s under-enforcement of sanctions has historically been the greatest impediment to our North Korea policy, sanctions over-enforcement is an equal danger. Recently, I’ve heard influential people — including recovering engagers, preaching with the zeal of converts — advocating what sounded like a total trade embargo. (To be clear, Beyond Parallel’s study did not advocate this.) This would be inhumane, misguided, and politically unsustainable. It would play right into the regime’s hands by validating its disinformation and strengthening the arguments of its apologists.

The greatest long-term danger to an effective multilateral sanctions enforcement strategy is a loss of political will by one or more key nations. Pyongyang’s overhead is lower than that of most states because it doesn’t provide for its people, so breaking even one key nation out of a multilateral coalition can allow Pyongyang to get by for a year or two while it cultivates its next divide-and-conquer ploy. In South Korea and Europe in particular, public support for strong enforcement is vulnerable to charges — almost always made of lies, half-truths, ignorance, and appeals to emotion — that sanctions harm only the ordinary people. (And in the case of, say, old-fashioned trade sanctions against Iraq, the charge was mostly true. Many people who still don’t understand financial sanctions and who don’t know they don’t understand are still stuck in this paradigm.)

To maintain political support for such a multilateral sanctions enforcement strategy long enough for that strategy to work, policymakers must answer those charges, because people who are either sympathetic to the regime or myopically focused on aiding a tiny minority of its people are certain to lodge it, and shallow thinkers in the press are certain to echo it.

Thus, policymakers need more than just a sanctions strategy. They need to understand how sanctions complement other tools within a broader policy, and how all of those tools combine to achieve a plausible outcome. And to sustain any of it, they need an information strategy for answering these predictable arguments.

First, they must keep pointing out exactly how many North Koreans Kim Jong-un could feed with what he has instead chosen to spend on nukes, missiles, weapons, yachts, palaces, ski resorts, armored limousines, flat screen TVs, and … I could go on.

Second, they must emphasize their principled insistence that sanctions must only be targeted against the income sources the regime uses to buy all of these things instead of food. They must avoid unforced errors like this one at all costs. They should move quickly to identify and correct adverse and unwanted impacts from sanctions. Both the U.N. Security Council resolutions and U.S. sanctions law have provisions and general licenses for that purpose.

Third, they should point to what Pyongyang itself is doing, for the sake of its own internal control, to inhibit private agriculture, domestic market trading, and cross-border consumer-level trade. Those activities probably keep most North Koreans alive today. What almost no one is saying — and more people should be saying — is that Pyongyang’s sanctions against its own people are causing far more harm than international sanctions against Pyongyang itself. The latest example of that is this report that His Supreme Corpulency has ordered the planting of trees on private farm plots that probably grow a substantial portion of North Koreans’ food supply.

After Kim’s declaration, the government started to enforce laws against slash-and-burn farming all over North Korea. However, this is a matter of life and death for ordinary people. Consequently, last year, as long as trees were not cut down, in return for bribe, agriculture officials looked away if a person was cultivating short crops. Since then, the writer of this article confirmed that many farmers have given up slash-and-cut agriculture, though tree replantation is yet to take hold. [….]

“They wouldn’t allow us to go near our fields in the mountains. If we planted something, they’d pull it out of the ground. I recently planted potatoes, and they pulled them out. It was growing well…….” [Rimjin-gang]

Fourth, leaders should say more about how quickly and easily Pyongyang could end its quarter-century-long, man-made food crisis with a few bold policy decisions. For one thing, it could stop exporting so much of its food production for cash. This practice has even yielded some evidence that sanctions have actually improved North Korea’s food supply, by barring the exports of mushrooms, seafood, and other delicacies for cash, and forcing trading companies to shift from sanctioned trade to non-sanctioned trade in food. (My suggestion for the next round of U.N. sanctions? A ban on food exports.) North Korea could solve its short-term hunger problem in 30 days by halting food exports, and by choosing to import more food and less swag. Sanctions would do nothing to interfere with any of that. It could end its long-term hunger problem in less than a year with land reform that redistributes land to the tillers, and by ending the confiscation of private farms.

Finally, they should quietly pressure U.N. aid agencies to reassess well-meaning but flawed aid policies that haven’t addressed North Korea’s food crisis and may be prolonging it. Aid will never help more than a tiny percentage of North Korea’s population as long as the regime continues to inhibit aid workers’ access to the hungry. What North Korea needs is fundamental land reform and a change in its government’s priorities.

A strategy for enforcing sanctions, then, must be both coordinated and calibrated to hurt the right people and not the wrong ones. China’s role is obviously critical here. No one should want China to impose a blanket trade embargo on North Korea, because a blanket trade embargo will affect commerce that fills the markets and sustains the majority of North Koreans, and this will erode the political and diplomatic unity of a sanctions enforcement coalition. In the long-term, starving the North Korean people will discredit the use of sanctions to starve the regime.

On the contrary, it would be far better to open the taps on street-level jangmadang trade and hinder only the trade that exclusively funds the regime. Over time, the effect of this would be to deny the military and security forces a steady income and force them to turn to corruption to survive. This would catalyze more smuggling and more defections. It would mean more copies of “Descendants of the Sun” on sale in the markets. The good news is that the early signs suggest that since sanctions have taken effect, corruption has increased among the internal security forces and railroad police, and that the flow of refugees into South Korea has increased, although there still isn’t enough evidence to identify a pattern in these reports or assign a cause to them.

Still, these reports suggest how cutting the regime’s funds and blocking its accounts would preferentially impact the elites and break down their cohesion to the regime, starting with its financially critical overseas workers and trade agents, and progressing to those who maintain the system of internal security. It would force the regime to launch ever more mass mobilizations and confiscatory demands for “loyalty” payments that sap Kim Jong-un’s domestic political support among the poor.

Collectively and gradually, these trends would accelerate an ongoing shift in North Korea’s internal balance of power downward in North Korea’s songbun system, from generals to donju, from border guards to smugglers, from party members to non-members, from soldiers to sotoji farmers, from police to market traders, in every village, factory, and neighborhood. Only when Pyongyang realizes this will it realize that time is not on its side. And only when Pyongyang realizes that time is against it will diplomacy stand any chance of lasting success. If it doesn’t, and consequently drowns in the tide of history, that would be far from the worst possible outcome.

2 Comments

  1. It doesn’t help that according to the NK Pro article “North Korea hopes to make $5.5 million from carbon credit scheme” (paywalled, but the free text gets the point across) the Nork Empire figured out the export carbon credit business. For those of us criticized / attacked as “climate deniers” – myself proudly included – this only helps prove that the global greenhouse carbon cause is a scam religion.

    Kinda like juche, I guess . . .

  2. “North Korea is looking to sell carbon credits, therefore climate change doesn’t exist” is a complete non sequitir.

    Having said that, I agree that your story exposes a serious flaw in this scheme. Countries like North Korea don’t put out carbon emissions because they’re medieval third-world hellholes with outdated infrastructure, and probably much worse environmental problems than modern countries have. And as your story illustrates, these credits end up being a source of cash to despotic regimes.

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