Bartlett: Sanctions, A Fruitless Endeavor

The foreign policy approach to North Korea is ineffective and dangerous.

by Nicholas Bartlett | 1/11/18 1:00am

 “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This principle is said to govern the machinations of the entire universe. Scientifically or otherwise, it certainly makes sense: All actions have consequences. The United Nations does not seem to have accurately understood the principle in its responses to North Korea. Every North Korean infraction of global policy does not precipitate an equal and opposite response; No, every action gives way to a meager — and nearly always ineffective — set of sanctions.

Sanctions are the deliberate termination of certain trading patterns and economic relations between one country and another. In the case of the UN and North Korea, these sanctions target a particular industry within the nation then actively aim to curtail the export or import of goods and services to coerce compliance with any previously ignored regulations. Theoretically, the North Korean economy would suffer substantially from the sanctions, and the resulting civil and financial unrest would warrant acquiescence. However, as has been the case with the Asian nation since its inception, North Korea has defied expectations.

The problem began in late 2006 when it was revealed that North Korea had begun testing nuclear weapons, a strictly prohibited action. Accordingly, the United Nations decided to impose its first sanctions, thinking that the seemingly insignificant nation would capitulate to the pressure of the outside world. Twelve years, five nuclear tests and an additional seven rounds of sanctions later, North Korea has shown no signs of quitting. North Korea has continued developing its nuclear weapons program. The sanctions repeatedly failed to accomplish their goal. Yet the global community remains dedicated to their implementation.

But why? Why bother wasting the time and energy of countless nations upon a fruitless endeavor? Put simply, the UN lacks the power to do anything else — barring the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force — and the countries which comprise it lack the tenacity to utilize more resources and put themselves at risk. No nation wants to be responsible for the next great global conflict, so the innocuous and barely-confrontational method of sanctioning proves the perfectly imperfect tactic for global leaders. They can address the issue, look powerful while doing so and avoid what could potentially be a devastating conflict. The only downside is that North Korea’s nuclear program is allowed to continue essentially unchecked.

While the sanctions may allow the UN and other political leaders to save face on the global stage, their impotence concocts a perfect situation for the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un, in which the man is able to receive everything for which he could possibly ask. The inability to hinder nuclear weapon development permits North Korea to slowly but surely inch its way toward a seat at the table of global politics; the economic sanctions — despite being ineffective in achieving their true goal — make the Western world an easy scapegoat for much of the civilians’ suffering and further augments the strength of anti-Western propaganda. The outside world’s inability to get results makes North Korea seem powerful, ignoring the will of supposedly “superior” nations without serious ramifications. Thus, in attempting to preclude Kim Jong-Un’s search for nuclear power and influence over his own people, the United Nations has unwittingly engendered the contrary.

In 2018, with North Korea closer to possessing fully functional intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear weaponry than ever before, it is imperative that the rest of the world change its tactics. Sanctions are not the panacea to the qualms of the Korean Peninsula; the time for specious rhetoric and symbolic gestures has come and gone. A slap on the wrist and a few strongly worded tweets will not bring about the necessary change. No, the time has come to up the ante and stop imposing sanctions with no viable purpose other than to permit the global community to espouse that it is dealing with the issue. It is not. Instead, the global community should take action and further escalate the recent communications with China in an effort to expand its condemnation of North Korea’s current policy. Utilize pressure from its allies, however few they may be, as the catalyst in change.

If the UN is serious about upholding its prohibition of the development of nuclear weaponry, then it must admit that the current diplomatic approach toward North Korea has run its course. It is time to once again add consequence to the consequences — whatever that may be.