It’s Time for Rhetoric to Reflect Reality:
North Korea Sanctions Don’t Work
Daniel Jasper / NK Pro News
(May 11, 2021) — Proponents of sanctions against North Korea argue that sanctions are “smart” and effectively target the economic power of the North Korean elite. On the other hand, they also point to the need for sanctions because of the lavish lifestyles of North Korean leaders relative to the quality of life for the rest of the country. These arguments contradict one another. If sanctions — which have been in place for years and, in some cases, decades — effectively cripple the economic power of the elite, how is the elite able to sustain such lavish lifestyles?
NK News recently published a podcast interview with former National Security Council member Anthony Ruggiero, a proponent of North Korea sanctions. Ruggiero, and others that support this sanctions regime, say it has two primary goals: to change the behavior of the North Korean government by starving it of resources, and to bring the North Koreans to the negotiating table.
But this is contrary to a consensus that sanctions are ineffective at achieving these aims. Empirical studies going back decades demonstrate that sanctions mostly do not contribute to foreign policy goals, with only a handful of exceptions. Drawing on more than a century worth of data, researchers Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan found that even in instances in which local movements were calling for international sanctions, there was no general pattern that indicated whether sanctions were effective in achieving campaign objectives.
This consensus is supported by the fact that North Korea has continued to conduct missile tests and expand its intercontinental ballistic missile arsenal regardless of the severity of sanctions applied by the international community. While proponents argue that sanctions brought North Korea to the table during the Donald Trump administration, the total shutdown in communication after the Feb. 2019 Hanoi summit suggests that either the leverage was ephemeral or that Pyongyang instead responded to the prospect of engagement and security assurances.
But Ruggiero and other proponents continue to cling to sanctions in a way that reminds me of what critic Homi Bhabha dubbed “sly civility.” Put simply, the concept denotes ambiguous and self-contradicting rhetoric that allows a state or authority to proclaim support for social values while simultaneously violating those values — a sort of sociopolitical gaslighting. A chief characteristic of “sly civility” is that the rhetoric is often so amorphous that the discussion becomes detached from rationale and accountability. The rhetoric is repeated until it becomes embedded in political institutions to the point that the rhetoric pre-determines policymaking.
This phenomenon is evidenced by a consistent pattern of presenting two mutually exclusive versions of reality — something we often see in discussions about US policy towards North Korea. The discussion around the impact of sanctions on ordinary citizens has its own set of dueling rhetorical realities. Those in favor of sanctions argue that ordinary citizens aren’t harmed because sanctions are targeted and exemptions for humanitarian aid are built in. Proponents often follow that argument with a caveat that, if the people suffer enough, they may revolt or at least pressure their government for change.
These are competing conceptions of reality: Are ordinary citizens unharmed, or are their lives getting harder to the point that they may revolt? Are sanctions targeted at the elite — or are they putting pressure on ordinary people to revolt? It can’t be both.
The reality is that “targeted” sanctions cover such broad swaths of the North Korean economy that they likely violate additional protocols of the Geneva Convention, which relate to the victims of international conflict. As a consequence, agricultural inputs have fallen, leading to a drop in farming production. Sanctions have also made humanitarian assistance notoriously difficult to deliver in recent years and, at times, shipments have been stopped for items as small as nail clippers or spoons. It’s thus hard to argue the “targeted” nature of sanctions given their human cost and far-reaching effects.
Sanctions have not prevented North Korea from advancing their weapons technology
Sanctions proponents counter that if ordinary people are hurt by these policies, it’s the North Korean government’s fault. Alongside this argument is an oft-repeated refrain that “North Korea starves its people while building nuclear weapons.” But the North Korean government’s responsibility to its people does not absolve sanctioning countries, primarily the US, of their role in worsening the situation for the North Korean people. Sanctions make it difficult for North Korea to import, among other things, lifesaving medical devices and equipment — a challenge that exists regardless of how much Kim Jong Un decides to spend on his country’s military.
US policymakers would benefit from listening to their own admonishments. Washington allocated $714 billion to military spending in FY 2020 when 23% of US households were food insecure — including 40% of active duty service members. Pointing fingers at North Korea’s oversized military spending when millions of Americans may not be able to eat properly — to say nothing of America’s crumbling infrastructure — is a prime example of “sly civility.”
Fortunately, the discussion around sanctions is changing. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the DPRK, Tomás Ojea Quintana, has repeatedly called attention to the impact that sanctions have on the economic and social rights of ordinary North Koreans. In March, 55 civil society organizations representing 65 million supporters wrote to US President Joe Biden calling for immediate legal reform and the suspension of broad-based sanctions on civilian sectors.
There is growing awareness in Washington, as well. US House Rep. Andy Levin and Sen. Ed Markey reintroduced legislation in January that would help expedite the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the country. This follows a letter signed by 73 Members of Congress urging the White House to allow for the delivery of COVID-19 humanitarian assistance to sanctioned countries and locations.
Countless international officials have also called attention to the human impacts of North Korea sanctions and the need for relief, including at least eight UN special rapporteurs, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Secretary-General just in the last 14 months.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that broad sectoral sanctions are hurting ordinary North Koreans and are not contributing to foreign policy objectives, there continues to be seemingly automatic support for the measures among the US foreign policy establishment. As Bhabha would say: Rhetoric and discourse have replaced genuine democratic debate.
Daniel Jasper is the Public Education and Advocacy Coordinator for Asia at theAmerican Friends Service Committee. Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.