This past weekend, on Aug. 5, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved new sanctions against North Korea. UNSCR 2371 condemned North Korea’s repeated missile tests — including several tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles that suggested North Korea might be able to target the mainland United States. The United States had pushed hard for action to stall North Korea’s missile program, leaning particularly on China.
But are sanctions a good idea?
You might think so from the applause across the political spectrum. Of course, North Korea already faced targeted financial sanctions; the new sanctions are more general, prohibiting North Korea from selling goods such as coal, iron, iron ore, seafood, lead, and lead ore. Even left-leaning media, usually critical of President Trump, welcomed the sanctions, noting that Russia and China voted against Pyongyang.
But if we examine reporting on the Korean Peninsula and social science research, we find three clear reasons why the sanctions will probably have little effect on North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
1. Will China enforce the sanctions?
Passing a resolution is comparatively simple compared with actually stopping trade. China accounts for about 90 percent of North Korean trade. China scored political points with the United States by voting in favor of the sanctions — but will it actually enforce them?
It hasn’t in the past. During a previous round of supposedly powerful sanctions, trade between China and North Korea in fact increased by nearly 2.7 percent, according to reporting on the Peninsula. Observers believe that around half of Chinese-North Korean trade travels through the Chinese border-city Dandong. In recent weeks, reports out of Dandong have found no indication that trade is slowing.
But China has been bullish about these sanctions being properly implemented. So what are their likely effects?
2. Sanctions don’t often work
Those who advocate sanctions often argue that they’re effective by pointing to South Africa’s decision to end apartheid and Iran’s willingness to reach a nuclear agreement. The divestment campaign toward South Africa advocated the selling of stock in companies that had a presence in South Africa. In Iran, economic sanctions targeted the nation’s exports, including the oil and gas industries.
However, while academic research is not completely pessimistic about whether sanctions are effective, most recent scholarship is skeptical. Even the more optimistic study referenced above suggests sanctions have been effective at deterring states from launching weapons programs, but ineffective at curtailing existing programs like North Korea’s.
However, they have worked sometimes, advocates argue — so why can’t North Korea become one of the successful cases? And there are so few options for dealing with North Korea, others maintain, that sanctions are surely no worse than other options.
But that’s a mistaken point of view.
3. General sanctions on North Korea hurt the people
Not only is there evidence that sanctions don’t work generally — but there’s evidence that they do not work in North Korea.
These new sanctions are explicitly targeted at ending North Korea’s weapons programs. The U.N. states that the “provisions were not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the civilian population.” But recent research suggests that when times get economically tough in North Korea, which happens under sanctions, the general civilian population suffers — and not the regime elites.
Obviously, North Korea is such a closed society that it’s difficult to research sanctions’ effects. But Yong Suk Lee at Stanford used satellite data to analyze lights at night — this is as a well-established proxy for economic activity.
As sanctions on North Korea increase, Lee shows, regional inequality between the capital, Pyongyang, and more rural areas increases. The North Korean regime kept the nation’s resources for itself, depriving poorer, rural civilians. In other words, these general sanctions on North Korea don’t in fact hurt key members of the regime; rather, they inflict “adverse humanitarian consequences” on civilians.
That finding is consistent with previous research. In 2007, two leading experts on North Korea, Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, showed that during the famine of the early and mid-1990s, the regime distributed food to feed the elites, not the general population. They estimated that this contributed to between 600,000 and 1 million civilian deaths.
So what should we expect to come of these new sanctions? They may not be enforced; if they are, they probably won’t affect North Korea’s missile program; and they will probably hurt ordinary North Korean people.
Ed Goldring is a PhD student in political science at the University of Missouri.