Are Economic Sanctions Effective To Stop North Korea’s Nuclear Activity?

Asia Perri

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is one of the most isolated states in the world due to its totalitarian regime led by Kim Jong-Un. Besides this, North Korea is internationally notorious for its nuclear activity. After the first nuclear test made by the North Korean regime on the 9th of October 2006, not only did the United Nations start to punish the DPRK through multilateral sanctions but also the United States imposed its own unilateral sanctions against the regime. Many resolutions have been drafted by the United Nations in order to stop North Korea from testing nuclear weapons.

However, despite the numerous resolutions drafted and the consequent sanctions, the DPRK has not ceased its nuclear activity. Much debate has been done on whether sanctions, in this case, are useful, and whether anything could be done to make them more effective.

Economic sanctions are generally implemented by external governments to change the behavior of another country, usually in order to reach the desired objective. However, despite the clear aim, there is widespread knowledge of their ineffectiveness. In fact, sanctions rarely succeed in producing the desired change in that particular state. All these observations can be seen in the case of North Korea: in spite of all the sanctions received, the desired effect on the DPRK such as the stopping of all nuclear activity has not been yet achieved.    

The United Nations Security Council has passed numerous resolutions and therefore enforced dozens of sanctions. However, none of these have been able to stop North Korea’s nuclear proliferation. The reasons behind this reality are many and by looking at the general framework of these resolutions, they all seem to lack strong measures for enforcement.

To begin with, this stems from a gap between the written text of the sanctions themselves and the actual enforcement that these must have in order to have an impact on North Korea. This cannot only be seen in Resolution 2094 but also in the first resolutions RES/1718 of 2006 and RES/2321 of 2016. The rhetorical devices used in these resolutions in particular, such as ‘calls upon’, ‘decides’, and ‘requests’, are clear examples of weak uses of language that are unable to achieve their objective. This shows a clear fault in the way in which the UN has been focusing on the North Korean nuclear issue, and that in order for sanctions to be more effective, harsher wording that actively tackles the issue and sets up penalties for states that do not abide by its rulings must be used.

Besides an enforcement issue that lies within the written text of the resolution, it is also true that despite the United Nations Charter’s obligations to implement and enforce the Security Council resolutions stated in Article 25, these are undermined by the fact that ultimately, it depends on the states whether or not they commit to the obligations made by the Security Council “in lieu of the UNSC’s incapacity to enforce its resolutions as a sovereign entity in its own right”. From this, it can be conjectured that the sanctions made by the United Nations Security Council present the opportunity to not comply with them. Therefore, in order for sanctions to be more effective, the UN would have to have a more assured method of enforcing them, rather than just relying upon the cooperation of all member states. 

Also, while it can be observed that the United States is the current world hegemon, it can be said that it has an alarming lack of political influence in Pyongyang. It is obvious that the United States could see that North Korean isolationism is the key to solving the nuclear issue. However, it could be argued that it is this isolationism that limits American influence in the regime and protects it from the worst effects of international sanctions. In fact, U.S. trade is so minimal that its sanctions alone would not have any impact on North Korea at all. This is why the United States has pushed for UN multilateral sanctions through the UNSC. However, due to the relative absence of western presence in the North Korean economy, these actions cannot be said to have had any serious economic impacts as of yet. 

Moreover, American sanctions against North Korea cannot be effective in changing its nuclear habits due to China’s key place in dealing with North Korea. Due to the aforementioned lack of American influence on North Korean economics and politics, China has been repeatedly called into any debate regarding North Korean sovereignty, security, and nuclear actions. This situation prevents North Korean sanctions from being effective because China has been seen to shirk its responsibilities in the international sanctions it votes for, and to actively water down western sanctions. The fact that this situation improves China’s standing as it gains diplomatic importance through being the key player in such a vital issue in global security, incentivizes China’s dragging out of the process in order to continue to extract further gains in the future.

Therefore, China would continue to ensure that North Korea has enough trade to function so that it can maintain the status quo and retain its diplomatic importance. While it can be said that China has shown increasing willingness to impose sanctions on North Korea since 2006, initially these sanctions were meaningless to the North Korean economy as China can be described as only half-heartedly following sanctions, and where they were imposed, they were imposed loosely and vaguely.

It has been argued that China does this because it profits massively from a monopoly on North Korean trade thanks to the geopolitical tumult that North Korean nuclear testing has caused. In fact, even when China did take a more proactive stance on North Korean trade sanctions in 2013, the trade turnover with North Korea made a record growth of 7.8%, and Chinese trade, worth $6.5 billion, constituted 89.1% of North Korea’s total trade of that year. In this way, it can be said that sanctions have also been ineffective in dealing with the nuclear threat in North Korea due to China’s relatively lax attitude regarding North Korean imports as the Chinese government profits too much from near-exclusive access to Pyongyang’s markets.

  • If economic sanctions can’t force North Korea to stop using nuclear weapons, what can?
  • Would greater diplomatic engagement help the situation?
  • Can China be blamed for not blocking North Korea’s nuclear testing?

Further Readings

Kim, S.C. & Cohen, M.D. (2017) North Korea and Nuclear Weapons: Entering the New Era of Deterrence. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press.

Noland, M. (2009) The (Non-) Impact of UN Sanctions on North Korea, Asia Policy, 7, 61-88.

Rüdiger, F. (2018) Economic Sanctions against North Korea: The Wrong Way to Achieve the Wrong Goal?, Asia Policy, 13(3), 5-12.

Shen, D. (2008) Can Sanctions Stop Proliferation?, Washington Quarterly, 31(3), 89-100.

Whitty, M., Kim, S. & Crick, T. (2006) The Effectiveness of Economic Sanctions: The Case of North Korea, North Korean Review, 2(1), 50-65.

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