In an article on Politico titled, “Yes, we do have a way to deal with North Korea,” Peter Harrell declares that sanctions are the way to force North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. Never mind that 60 years of sanctions have been laughably ineffective, the problem is clearly that we haven’t had enough, or, perhaps, the right kind of sanctions!
Despite the common assumption that North Korea is already subject to crippling international sanctions, U.S. and international sanctions actually leave vast parts of the North Korean economy untouched. This isn’t just about China; the United States and Europe can ratchet up the pressure on the North Korean regime with the ultimate goal of reining in one of today’s greatest national security challenges.
So the first roadblock to Harrell’s plan is that it requires more than the United States to enforce these crippling sanctions, which is admittedly possible, but is by no means an easy task. President Trump has already moved in this direction by successfully urging China to increase pressure on the North Korean regime, which they have done by recently refusing to accept North Korean exports of coal. That said, getting China to take one step is difficult enough, but getting China, Europe, and Russia, especially in light of the diplomatic breakdown there, to work with the U.S. completely on this issue will require a huge diplomatic effort and many concessions the U.S. may not be willing to give.
Furthermore, remember that every perceived act of belligerence against North Korea is met with more belligerence. If the U.S., China, Russia, and the E.U. were completely on the same page regarding sanctions against North Korea one can easily predict the response: A flurry of rockets will be fired from Pyongyang as a ridiculous show of strength. Who exactly will be coming to the negotiating table under those circumstances?
Nor have sanctions ever been as effective as Harrell would have us believe. Sanctions against Cuba did nothing but help entrench Castro in power and leave the Cuban people in an even worse situation than they otherwise would have been. That sanctions inevitably harm the people of a country more than they do the government would likely be even more apparent in North Korea.
During the famine in the 1990’s, Kim Jong-il, the current leader’s father, refused to accept aid for his people so that they would remain dependent solely on his government. In other words, he let his people starve to death en masse so that they would never start to think that they could live without him running their lives. A regime that paranoid about its hold on power is not likely to give up its nuclear weapons over sanctions. This is especially true if we consider the lessons of the Middle East. In Libya, for example, Maummar Gaddhafi gave up his nuclear program at the behest of the United States only to have the U.S. turn around and arm a bunch of radicals that brutally murdered him in the streets, and you can bet that Kim was watching that with interest.
The underlying theme of Harrell’s article, however, is that sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and they could do the same for North Korea if administered properly, but the idea that Iran and North Korea are similar in any respect is a farce. As Harrell himself states, estimates of North Korea’s GDP are around $30 billion a year, whereas the World Bank says that Iran’s GDP in 2016 was $412.2 billion. The notion that a relatively modern, global power, especially compared to the rest of the Middle East, like Iran is comparable to insular North Korea, whose official national ideology, Juche, is the idea that they must be almost entirely self-reliant and independent from every other nation, makes no sense. Their economic interests are entirely different from one another with North Korea having less to lose from aggressive sanctions.
As far as their position on and history with nuclear weapons goes, Iran and North Korea couldn’t possibly be more different. The Kim regime openly celebrates, and likely exaggerates, its nuclear capabilities and is very open about how they view nuclear weapons as necessary to their defense. In his annual new year address for 2017, Kim Jong-un makes these statements:
Last year an epochal turn was brought about in consolidating the defence capability of Juche Korea, and our country achieved the status of a nuclear power, a military giant, in the East which no enemy, however formidable, would dare to provoke…
We will continue to build up our self-defence capability, the pivot of which is the nuclear forces, and the capability for preemptive strike as long as the United States and its vassal forces keep on nuclear threat and blackmail and as long as they do not stop their war games they stage at our doorstep disguising them as annual events. We will defend peace and security of our state at all costs and by our own efforts, and make a positive contribution to safeguarding global peace and stability.
The leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, on the other hand, has been openly hostile to the idea of developing nuclear weapons. From his official website:
The Islamic Republic of Iran considers the use of nuclear, chemical and similar weapons as a great and unforgivable sin. We proposed the idea of “Middle East free of nuclear weapons” and we are committed to it…
I stress that the Islamic Republic has never been after nuclear weapons and that it will never give up the right of its people to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Our motto is: “Nuclear energy for all and nuclear weapons for none.” We will insist on each of these two precepts, and we know that breaking the monopoly of certain Western countries on production of nuclear energy in the framework of the Non-Proliferation Treaty is in the interest of all independent countries, including the members of the Non-Aligned Movement.
Most importantly, however, is that unlike North Korea, there is no evidence that Iran has ever truly been close to developing a nuclear weapon or violating the Non-Proliferation Treaty to which it is a party. In a 2015 report on Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency declared that while the Iranian government was looking into the capability of nuclear weapons in a period that extended somewhat beyond 2003, “these activities did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies, and the acquisition of certain relevant technical competences and capabilities.” They furthermore state that they have no evidence whatsoever of Iran seeking a nuclear weapon beyond 2009.
In short, the fundamental problem with Harrell’s assertion that sanctions against North Korea can work if we follow the Iran model is that Iran and North Korea have divergent interests in nearly every respect. Iran had every incentive to agree to tighter controls on its nuclear weapon capabilities because it has no interest in developing nuclear weapons, whereas Kim Jong-un has every incentive to further develop his nuclear weapons program to maintain his power regardless of sanctions.