(November 3, 2019) — Economic sanctions are a central instrument of US foreign policy. They are a tactic short of war designed to shape the behavior of real and perceived US adversaries, from Russia, to Venezuela, to Iran, to North Korea. But as a new report commissioned by Korea Peace Now has documented, broad-based sanctions can be every bit as deadly for vulnerable populations as war itself.
The new report — The Human Costs and Gendered Impact of Sanctions on North Korea — demonstrates that the increasingly harsh measures imposed on North Korea in response to its nuclear and ballistic missile programs have caused thousands of unnecessary deaths, many of them involving children under five years of age.
Part of the problem is that over the past few years, “smart” sanctions focused on North Korea’s ruling elite and its military sector have been expanded dramatically to encompass what the report describes as “an almost total ban on North Korea-related trade, investments, and financial transactions.”
In theory, North Korean sanctions are supposed to allow exemptions for humanitarian items, but in practice essential materials are blocked either due to excessive red tape or rigid strictures that prevent the transfer of essential equipment. For example, prohibitions on the transfer of industrial machinery, transportation vehicles, and iron, steel, and other metals often prevent the import of much needed agricultural machinery and medical devices.
Life-saving equipment is too often unavailable. Agricultural output is falling, exports are plummeting, and lack of access to basic resources like fuel make it extremely difficult to get people to health care facilities in a timely fashion. These changes have harmed the lives and livelihoods of the North Korean population, but have done little to change the behavior of the North Korean regime.
Henri Feron, a co-author of the report and a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, has summed up the case as follows: “sanctions in their current form may be contrary to international law, in particular humanitarian and human rights norms. Sanctions also raise moral questions, as they effectively take the entire country’s population hostage.”
So, what should be done? The ultimate solution is to address the larger security questions on the Korean Peninsula by lifting sanctions in conjunction with enforceable curbs on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program; and moving towards a peace agreement that will bring a formal end to the Korean war, as the governments of North and South Korea have expressed a strong interest in doing.
Prior to that, all available steps must be taken to lift and revise the elements of the sanctions with the most damaging humanitarian consequences, so that life-saving equipment and provisions can flow into North Korea unimpeded. The Korea Peace Now report sets out the necessary steps in greater detail.
The North Korean case is not the only instance in which “maximum pressure” in the form of harsh sanctions is doing more harm than good. In Iran, the working and middle classes have borne the brunt of the of the Trump administration’s tightening of sanctions. But far from weakening the regime politically, the sanctions have increased anti-US sentiment and bolstered government hardliners even as they have made it harder for internal proponents of democracy and human rights to operate.
Meanwhile, it is making it increasingly difficult for the next US administration to revive the Iran nuclear deal, a multi-lateral agreement that was working to rein in Tehran’s nuclear program while reducing tensions in the region.
Carefully targeted sanctions — including a cutoff of arms to repressive regimes like the Saudi government over its war in Yemen, or the global economic boycott of the apartheid regime in South Africa — which was carried out in coordination with internal opponents like the African National Congress and the Black Conscious-ness movement — have a place in a forward-looking foreign policy. But as the North Korean case demonstrates, they need to be used with care to ensure that they don’t make bad situations worse and serve as an obstacle to addressing deep-seated security problems rather than a tool for resolving them.
William Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. I am the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex (Nation Books, 2011) and the co-editor, with Miriam Pemberton, of Lessons from Iraq: Avoiding the Next War (Paradigm Press, 2008). My previous books include And Weapons for All (HarperCollins, 1995), a critique of US arms sales policies from the Nixon through Clinton administrations.
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