Andrei Lankov is a professor of Korean studies at Kookmin University in Seoul.
On Dec. 22, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 2397, which may well mark a dramatic change in the hitherto grossly ineffective sanction policies targeting North Korea. These tough new measures could well end up having a dramatic impact — but if they do, the consequences are likely to be much different from what their supporters anticipate.
The various sanctions imposed by the U.N. over the years have so far had little effect. Over the past decade, North Koreans have cautiously reformed their economy according to the Chinese model, allowing them to achieve annual growth of 4 to 5 percent. This has given the North a certain degree of resilience.
The major reason for the failure of the sanctions, however, has been China’s willingness to undermine the sanctions regime wherever possible. Indeed, just last week, evidence suggesting that China has continued selling oil to the North prompted a harsh statement from President Trump. (China denies the reports.)
In fact, though, cheating on sanctions makes perfect sense when viewed from the perspective of China’s national interest. While China disapproves of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, it is far more afraid of any prospect of instability in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Now, however, the bellicose rhetoric of Trump has changed this equation. Chinese leaders have reason to be afraid of a war and hence are more willing to face the risks brought about by a comprehensive sanctions regime.
Indeed, Resolution 2397 imposes what amounts to a full-scale economic blockade. Most North Korean exports, including the export of labor, are now illegal, so the country is likely to lose about 80 percent of its hard-currency earnings. Shipments of liquid fuel have been capped at about 10 percent of last year’s level, and crude oil shipments are limited, too.
If these measures are implemented, the result will be a massive blow to the North Korean economy. Living standards, which have been rising recently, will nosedive. Even outbreaks of famine in the countryside are possible.
The apparent assumption of the sanctions’ supporters is that the North Korean elite will respond to growing popular discontent by succumbing to the demands of outside powers and starting talks on denuclearization in order to avoid a revolution or coup. Indeed, the argument can be made that such an outcome is more likely today than it was during the Great Famine of the late 1990s. The North Korean surveillance system is increasingly rusty, and people are more aware of the alternatives.
In reality, though, the decision-makers in Pyongyang believe that the nuclear program is their only guarantee of security against both external attacks and foreign support for a local rebellion. The death of Moammar Gaddafi, widely presented in North Korea as an example of Western perfidy, made a deep impression on them. The North Korean elite believes that if Gaddafi had kept his nuclear program, the West never would have dared to intervene by imposing “no-fly zones” on his country. In such a scenario, government forces, benefiting from their air superiority and heavy weapons, would have probably prevailed over the insurgents.
For the North Korean elite, Gaddafi was a victim of his own naivete, and they are determined not to repeat his mistake. Even if the sanctions return North Korea to the state of economic disaster it experienced during the 1990s, when dead bodies piled up on the streets, the country’s leaders will still not agree to negotiate away their nuclear weapons.
Even if revolutionary violence breaks out, however, the North Korean elite will fight back with everything it has. Unlike the elites in other crumbling regimes (including Gaddafi’s), privileged North Koreans know that revolution will not merely change the leader and the top echelons of the military. It will almost certainly lead to the absorption of the North by South Korea, meaning that the entire North Korean elite — not only generals but also colonels and even majors — will lose power and income. These people are numerous (5 to 10 percent of the population). They will fight to the death, and their nuclear weapons will guarantee that nobody will dare to intervene in the bloody mess.
If the top leaders start losing the internal war and see themselves as doomed, they may decide to go out with a bang, not whimper — perhaps by using their nuclear weapons to attack neighboring countries and even the United States. China, which is increasingly seen by the North’s rulers as a traitor, will not be entirely out of harm’s way, either — even though the Japanese, Americans and South Koreans are likelier targets.
Even if a nuclear mini-Holocaust does not occur and the revolutionary forces eventually prevail, it will usher in an extremely painful and costly period of recovery. Refugees, violence and smuggling of weapons of mass destruction will remain issues for years. Turning present-day North Korea into an equivalent of the South will take decades.
Given the current state of mind in the United States, one can assume that these new sanctions will be more or less fully implemented. It is, however, time to start thinking ahead. The actual effects of these new, “effective” sanctions may turn out to be a nasty surprise for many. As the ancient sages warned us: “Be careful what you wish for.”