Unrealistic North Korean Sanctions

Sanctions are a favorite weapon of U.S. foreign policy, but often these punishments amount to expressions of indignation rather than instruments to achieve realistic change in a country’s behavior, observes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The new United Nations Security Council resolution on North Korea was mainly a U.S.-promoted show, even though it passed unanimously. The principal story of the resolution concerned how severe a set of sanctions the United States could get enacted, and how much it needed to water down the resolution to get support from other members of the council and especially to avoid vetoes from China and Russia.

Secretary-General António Guterres (left) addresses the Security Council ministerial-level meeting on North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs. At right is U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Behind Tillerson is U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

Press coverage of the council’s action and the diplomacy surrounding it was all about the extent of the sanctions, what they did and did not cover, and how they went beyond previously enacted sanctions. There was almost no mention in the coverage of what the sanctions were intended to accomplish.

This imbalance of attention mirrors the habitual American approach to sanctions, in which almost all discussion and debate is focused on finding new ways to inflict punishment on whatever country is the target of the sanctions, with far less attention to exactly what the government of that country would have to do to avoid or remove the sanctions, and even less attention to whether it is realistic to expect such a change in the targeted country’s policies.

Too often the subject is treated as if the purpose of sanctions is to express our displeasure with a foreign regime — which, in terms of domestic politics, often really is the purpose.

The Trump administration’s policy on North Korea has so far been firmly in this unfortunate tradition of giving much attention to threats and punishment but far less to defining carefully exactly what we expect from the North Koreans. Trump’s much-noticed threat to inflict “fire and fury like the world has never seen” was what he said would be the response if Pyongyang did not heed his warning that it “best not make any more threats to the United States.”

What exactly is the line being drawn here, which North Korea is not supposed to cross lest it receive the fire and fury? North Korea makes threats against the United States all the time. Is it supposed to cut out the inflammatory rhetoric? If it is actions and not just rhetoric that are deemed to constitute threats, exactly which actions? North Korea does plenty of objectionable things, many of which could be considered threatening, but are they all worthy grounds for employing the fire and fury? We are left to wonder, and so are the North Koreans.

The imposition of sanctions, as with other formation of foreign policy, needs to begin with a clear conception of what we want from the other state. There must be prioritization to separate what would be nice to get from what is vital to get and for which the most potent foreign policy instruments should be employed.

There needs to be careful analysis of what is feasible in terms of what policy changes by the targeted regime would be realistic to expect. That in turn requires analysis of why that regime is doing what it is doing, and what incentives, positive as well as negative, could be expected to get it to change course. What sanctions or other measures are sustainable in terms of support from other countries is yet another important consideration.

Perhaps such policy analysis has already been thoroughly performed inside the administration, although there are few public indications that it has. What certainly is missing is a specific, feasible proposition to which North Korea could say “yes” to get out, even partially, from under the sanctions gun.

Unrealistic Demands

The new Security Council resolution does include a bill of particulars about objectionable North Korean behavior, but the list is so sweeping and peremptory that it is unrealistic to expect even a heavily punished Pyongyang to change course in deference to all the demands. The resolution uses language such as “immediately abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs” and “immediately suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program,” and even gets into things such as “the necessity of the DPRK respecting and ensuring the welfare and inherent dignity of people in the DPRK.”

North Korean missile launch on March 6, 2017.

Getting rid of all the nuclear weapons would surely head any list of important and desirable changes in what North Korea does today. But if there were even a faint hope of that happening, substantial positive incentives and not just threats and sanctions would be required. There are ideas available along that line, but there is no indication the administration has communicated such incentives to North Korea. Probably some combination of security guarantees, recognition of the North Korean regime, and formal conclusion of the Korean War would be needed to keep even a faint hope alive. Threats of the fire and fury variety are more likely to be disincentives to Pyongyang giving up a nuclear force that is intended at least in part to be a deterrent, as North Korea’s nukes surely are.

The historical record is not encouraging regarding any possibility of states that already have their own nuclear weapons ever giving them up. A possible precedent involved the non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union that had nuclear weapons on their territory at the time of the union’s dissolution (Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine). But that was a special case involving the break-up of the USSR, and the three republics in question did not have operational control of the weapons. Moreover, the experience of Ukraine, where Russia does not appear to have complied with the security guarantees that were part of the agreement under which Ukraine surrendered the weapons, is hardly an encouraging precedent for other nuclear weapon-possessing states, including North Korea.

Another possible precedent was South Africa’s dismantling of a small inventory of nuclear devices in 1989, but that was in anticipation of a peaceful change of regime of a sort that the Kim regime in North Korea would never countenance or contemplate.

Many observers have concluded, with good reason, that North Korean nuclear weapons are a fait accompli and that U.S. policy must be based on deterring their use rather than seeking in vain their complete elimination. That leaves open the question of what all those sanctions should be used to try to achieve. There are several conceivable answers to that question, involving such things as limits on testing or the range of delivery vehicles.

But the final answer to that question is uncertain, and the Trump administration has done little or nothing to bring us closer to such an answer. What is certain is that any worthy policy or strategy needs to begin with a clear concept of what we are trying to achieve, with adequate attention given to what is realistic in terms of North Korean motivations and the cooperation of other states.

Also certain is that no matter how much pressure is applied, the pressure will accomplish nothing if neither we nor the North Koreans know what it is supposed to accomplish. Or as Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.”

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

11 comments for “Unrealistic North Korean Sanctions

  1. Kalen
    September 15, 2017 at 16:08

    I question the author’s basic premise that there is any reason or foundation to even attempt to correct behavior of anyone located 8000 miles away. The assumption or legitimacy claim of US hegemonic interests I reject flatly.

    At best if there s a problem wth NK. It may be solved by SK, Japan, China and Russia as common sense dictates. Yankees go home .

  2. Michael Kenny
    September 15, 2017 at 11:20

    Sanctions are indeed a typical Trump show: all sound and fury but no action. The ISS report, drawn attention to by Robert Parry, argues that North Korea is getting rocket motors illicitly either from or via Russia. All Putin has to do is stop that traffic and NK’s capacity to dleiver nuclear weapons stops dead in its tracks. Equally, Russia is NK’s principal oil supplier. If Putin imposed an oil imbargo, the whole of NK would grid to a halt. China too could stop buying North Korean goods and marketing them (illegally) as “made in China”. Sanctions on those countries are not going to get past the Security Council whatever happens.

    • Zachary Smith
      September 15, 2017 at 16:00

      Propagandists must, when necessary, lie through their teeth.

      The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, or IISS, released a report on August 14 that said North Korea’s recent rapid leap forward in liquid-propellant rocket engine technology—which led to the testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the United States—was likely due to its purchase of modified variants of mothballed, Soviet-era RD-250 rocket engines smuggled out of either Russia or Ukraine.

      Now a link to the actual IISS report.


  3. Bill
    September 15, 2017 at 09:38

    The US has what I would call a collective mental illness with regards to other countries. It’s a bully issue. At some point Europe isn’t going to put up with any more, and the same goes for China. It’s time for some “tough love” for the sick friend.

  4. john wilson
    September 15, 2017 at 04:13

    “instruments to achieve a realistic change in a country’s behavior” ? Its the behavior of the Americans that needs to change. They need to stop attacking other countries, destroying infrastructure and butchering men, women and children. The Yanks have already once destroyed North Korea albeit half a century or so ago. No one wants to waste money developing nuclear weapons, but nukes is the only thing which will protect people from the voracious appetite of the US to march around the world giving orders and murdering those who refuse to obey those orders.

  5. elmerfudzie
    September 15, 2017 at 01:07

    Let us begin at the beginning…Following WW II, the US seized Korea from Japanese Imperial rule. Due to “cold war” strategists and geopolitical posturing by both the USSR and USA, the country was split in two (1948) and by 1953, America had once again, stepped up to the plate, paying in blood, over thirty three thousand of our soldiers died on the battlefield for good cause, the preservation of a now very successfully prosperous and democratic, South Korean government. Aside from our sacrifices, there were Korean deaths and atrocities with plenty of blame across both sides of the Sino-Korean front, now a DMZ. This number was known to surpass 100,000 civilians, killed by order of President Syngman Rhee, the victims were of socialist or communist persuasion..In any case, China responded to US intervention by pushing our front line forces from the Yalu River, back south. In 1951, it looked as tho we were going to use battlefield nukes to offset China’s decision to bring additional troops onto their border with Korea. It’s interesting to note that the Chinese were not the least intimidated by the A-bomb threat, and today, apparently, neither is Un..But what exactly is Un? the inner nature of a personage like him? Aside from being a satrap of the CCP, his dubious claim on leadership, the Kim family claim, revolves around a dynasticism that left the world scene following the end of WW I. This political succession “to the throne” was and is based on the concept of “bu” the so called Paektu Bloodline. Hardly justifiable grounds, for the nations of the world, to accept or tolerate, three generations of incorrigible leaders, as the present political and military conditions show. Examples; kidnapping more than thirteen Japanese citizens by North Korean agents, Pyongyang also reneged on it’s agreement to cooperate on issues related to its nuclear program (reprocessing facilities producing plutonium for atomic weapons). Bush removed the North from our state sponsor terror list, followed by the Obama administration’s warning to them, that failure to follow through on previous commitments and promises would bring on, “immediate consequences,” Obama specifically stated this, for all the world to hear. Prez Trump will see this one through, At this juncture in world history, we’ve invested a lot blood and treasure in the Korea’s. The figure has tallied up to a half a trillion dollars (in today’s dollars) and thirty three thousand plus soldiers at Arlington cemetery, they will not have died in vain!

    • Jams O'Donnell
      September 21, 2017 at 14:05

      “we’ve invested a lot blood and treasure” – Nobody asked you to. The US should stick to it’s own borders, just like everyone else does, mostly.

  6. September 14, 2017 at 23:14

    There needs to be careful analysis of what is feasible in terms of what policy changes by the targeted regime would be realistic to expect.

  7. Susan Sunflower
    September 14, 2017 at 20:36

    Trump — give him an inch, he will demand a mile … too bad, like the boy who cried wolf, the dog whose bark is biger than his bite (thank god), whose eyes are bigger than his stomach (or perhaps just just his jaw-capacitiy) — he’s been found out …
    Apparently he’s now “fibbing” about trying to reach Nieto (president of Mexico) post- earthquake … blaming poor cell-phone coverage … jesus f9ck what an embarrassment.

    heaven forbid a nuclear strike or other more natural disaster made any other heads of state “unreachable” to American leadership.

    As Kanye said about GWB after Katrina, Trump don’t care about brown people.

    P.s. Keep 1500 ISIS family members in Iraqi custody in your prayers.

  8. mike k
    September 14, 2017 at 19:25

    Common sense and a desire for world peace have nothing to do with American policy. Any pretense to the contrary is simply hollow propaganda. To expect anything different from the US government is self delusion. This is an insane war culture – get used to it.

    • mike k
      September 14, 2017 at 19:29

      Is there any chance this war madness will change? Yes, when it is destroyed or destroys everything including itself.

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