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[Lee Jae-min] Will this dose of sanctions work?

North Korea’s missile tests on July 4 and 28 were met with one of the most stringent sanctions adopted by the UN Security Council over the weekend. A new sanction of the Security Council, known as Resolution 2371, is now going to slash North Korea’s export of coal, iron and seafood by $1 billion, roughly one third of its total annual exports. Will the measure exert more pain on North Korea? Of course, it will. Losing one third of the export revenue should be a significant blow to any country. Undoubtedly, the new sanction will further choke North Korea’s economy. Will the new sanction then force North Korea to think differently and come to the negotiating table finally? Unlikely.

North Korea has managed to survive previous sanctions. These sanctions would have easily toppled any normal government with an ordinary sense of responsibility. North Korea has been different all along. Presumably, an economic sanction has an inherent limitation for a country that has virtually given up on the development of its economy, for a country whose leadership stands to gain more politically by facing ever stronger outside pressure. Over time, incremental doses of sanctions have increased the North Korean regime’s immunity to outside economic pressure. An additional slap on the wrist, however hard it is, would not change the basic thinking of the North. Only if a sanction leads to a direct threat to the regime, might it have that effect.

One way to get there is to control oil imports to North Korea. This may push the reclusive regime’s economy to the brink of collapse, probably a threatening the leadership. Despite its effectiveness, or rather because of it, oil import restrictions are again left out of the new sanctions. With these elements omitted, the new sanctions will impose more difficulties, but will not be able to push North Korea to seriously reconsider its course of action. With more rattles and clunks, the car will continue to run, as it has done before.

Frustrating and unfortunate, but at the same time, there is really nothing else that can be done. All in all, at this time this is the most that can be achieved with the cooperation from China and Russia. So, we can only hope that the new sanctions will do something this time. Perhaps other countries will be more vigilant in implementing this resolution because of the likelihood of US trade sanctions against lapses and loopholes in enforcement.

And the new sanction specifically prohibits economic cooperation schemes with North Korea. It bans “the opening of new joint ventures or cooperative entities with” North Korea. As long as this resolution is in place, a suggestion or proposal of reinitiating economic exchange programs with the North including reopening Kaesong Industrial Complex will be directly affected. South Korea’s effort to explore some minimal economic exchange programs with the North, even if there is a positive response from the North in an unlikely breakthrough, will now hit a legal stonewall. An approval for an exception should be sought from the Security Council on a case-by-case basis.

Previous experiences tell us that economic penalties would hardly make North Korea budge. Nonetheless, if this is the only option and if this much is the most that can be achieved, then our only wish is that the new sanction will be fully enforced this time, such that Pyongyang will have to change its strategy and come to the negotiating table. Unanimous adoption of the resolution with the support from China and Russia with strong vows to enforce them, having observed the startling strides in the North’s ICBM technologies and capabilities, throws a flimsy hope that maybe this time the sanction will work somehow. It should, because the alternative is so disastrous.


By Lee Jae-min

Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at Seoul National University. He can be reached at -- Ed.