NK will launch ‘satellite’ despite sanction threat
So, it seems to be fairly certain: in near future North Korea will launch what they describe as a “satellite” and what the outside world is likely to see as a long-range ballistic missile. This time, the international community’s reaction seems to be unusually harsh, even Chinese expressed serious displeasure about North Korea’s plans. However, one can be pretty sure that in due course, in mid-April, the launch will take place, and will be claimed to be a success by the North Korean media, even if the “launch vehicle” malfunctions a few seconds after takeoff. We have seen this before, after all.
And then what next? One can be pretty sure about the outrage, expressed by the U.S. and some other major international players. The launch will likely kill the recent deal about U.S. food aid, and will strengthen the positions of hard-liners in Washington. They will start talking about sanctions again, and may be even succeed in applying to North Korea some additional sanctions.
However, the decades-long experience of dealing with North Korea leaves little doubt: international sanctions do not work. When the sanctions were first introduced after the October 2006 nuclear test and tightened after the second 2009 nuclear test, many a hardliner believed that this was the way to press the North Korean government into a corner and make them consider denuclearization. In academic articles, newspaper pieces and blog entries, many a hawk was ready to interpret pretty much every piece of news that emanated from the North as a sign of ‘sanctioning beginning to bite’.
But what has happened to the North Korean economy over the past five to six years? Contrary to expectations, the era of sanctions has been, rather, a time of mild economic recovery and growth. The expectations of hardliners therefore have as yet, come to nothing.
Why did sanctions fail to produce any noticeable impact on North Korea? It appears that there are two reasons. First, sanctions have been systematically sabotaged by China. Second, North Korean society itself is structured in a way as to make a sanctions regime very difficult to apply effectively.
China’s role as a sanctions breaker is very clear. From the early 2000s, Sino-North Korean trade has consistently and exponentially increased, and the imposition of sanctions produced no impact on this growth. In 2006-2011 period, it went from $1.6 bln to some $4.4 bln, increasing nearly threefold in five years.
A significant part of this trade is either subsidized by the Chinese government or at least is conducted according to political priorities. The Chinese state is, itself, the major sanctions breaker. We should not expect this to change any time soon: like it or not, China has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo on the Korean peninsula, in spite of the fact that Beijing is very uncomfortable about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
However, on should not put too much blame on the Chinese diplomats who are determined to keep North Korean regime afloat. Even if China were to change course and enforce the existing sanctions regime, the actual effect it would have on the North could be rather low. North Korea is a unique place; and one of the most important parts of this uniqueness is the absence of feedback between the ruled and the ruler. The average North Korean has next to no say in matters political. He or she cannot influence decision making in Pyongyang in any practical way.
When applying sanctions,diplomats and politicians usually insist that the sanctions will not harm those most vulnerable. Such assertions are patently untrue. Sanctions work exactly because they make the life of the average person in the target country less comfortable.
If a country is subjected to an international sanctions regime, it experiences economic difficulties which have an adverse impact on the lifestyle of its populace. This does not necessarily mean that the masses are starving. Some countries under sanctions happened to be quite affluent – like, say, Yugoslavia under Milosevic and South Africa under apartheid – so the above mentioned economic difficulties might in actuality merely mean that the average person might not be able to buy a new car or have to sacrifice their vacations overseas. But that said, sanctions mean economic troubles for the general population.
Thus sanctions create a situation where common people feel increasingly uneasy about the government whose policies on a particular international issue have made their country a target of international sanctions. As a result, they exercise pressure on the government. In democratic countries, they do this through the ballot box. In less permissive societies, discontent is expressed through rallies and civil disobedience, occasionally in acts of terrorism and even armed resistance. As a result, the government may bow to pressure, or if it is too stubborn it might be overthrown, losing power in revolution or elections.
As a matter of fact, we should not be surprised that recent research indicates that sanctions are usually more successful when the target is a democracy or a relatively mild, authoritarian regime.
Sometimes it is not the discontent of the average person but the discontent of the vice minister, major general or governor that is decisive. Dissatisfied elements within the elite may use popular protest and the deterioration of country’s international status in order to justify challenging the incumbent leadership. This can involve becoming the elite voice of the protestors or following a tried and test model, that is, staging a coup. At any rate, the regime that emerges subsequently is likely to reverse the policies which had led to the imposition of sanctions in the first place.
Yet, what is most important is that, at least at present, such a scenario is very unlikely to unfold in North Korea. In the highly unlikely event of effective economic sanctions ever being enforced, the people of North Korea may be brought back to the brink of starvation or worse. But such a disaster is very unlikely to provoke an outbreak of civil unrest or disobedience. It should be remembered that back in the 1990s, between 500,000 and 1 million starved to death in the North and so far as we know, this disaster did not produce any significant outbreak of rioting or protests. The people of the North did not revolt. Rather, sadly, they died silently, without questioning and trying to overthrowing their state.
This is not all that surprising. In order to start a revolution several conditions must satisfied. The people must be aware of available alternatives and they must have some organization and leadership. Moreover, and probably most importantly, they must think that their act of resistance, whether it leads personally to their own death or not, will ultimately lead to change for friends, family and future generations. If the likelihood of their resistance leading to nothing but their immediate death is sufficiently high, resistance becomes a hopeless dream.
None of the above conditions that justify resistance is met in the North. North Koreans are disorganized and without an alternative elite. They also do not see any alternative to their contemporary regime, at least as yet. And most decisively, because of this, they see resistance as being futile, as leading merely to their own instant death (and perhaps also death of those whom they love).
The situation within the elite is hardly more encouraging; the current sanctions regime targets, above all, the importation of luxury goods, under the assumption that the loss of Henessy VSOP and Mercedes spare parts will lead North Korean generals to challenge their current government.
But even as the average person in the North may not be aware of the existent political alternative to the current situation, the elite seem to be aware of it. A grave political crisis in Pyongyang is likely to lead to regime collapse and unification with the South. If North Korea were to experience a revolution, what we known as North Korea is likely to become the northern provinces of the Republic of Korea, sharing the fate of German Democratic Republic. Such a change will be welcomed by the average North Korean, at least initially, but for the elite it will mean the loss of power and authority, perhaps even freedom. Many of these people fear of being prosecuted for human rights abuses and other past misdeeds.
There is good reason to believe that North Korea’s decision makers have internalized Benjamin Franklin’s famous dictum, ‘If we don’t hang together, gentlemen, or assuredly we shall all hang separately’. The elite is likely to put up with the greatest shortage of Hennessy cognac and Swiss cheese, since the likely alternative is the loss of power, status and perhaps even death at the hands of lynching mob, Gaddafi style. These fears may be partially exaggerated, but are widely shared and by no means unfounded.
Therefore, one should maybe thankful that Beijing’s decision makers are quietly sabotaging the international sanctions regime against the North. If such a regime were to be effectively enforced, its most likely result would merely be widespread starvation, but not regime collapse. Paradoxically, the regime’s autocratic nature and indifference to its people’s suffering, make it more likely to survive. It appears that we are going to see another confirmation to this paradox in near future – after the coming missile launch, that is.