Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2009.08.05

The Effects of Sanctions against North Korea

On May 25, North Korea again conducted a nuclear test. The UN Security Council condemned this action and passed Resolution 1874. The Security Council also applied sanctions in 2006 after North Korea's first nuclear test, prohibiting the export to North Korea of various kinds of weapons as well as equipment and technology that could contribute to the development of nuclear weapons or missiles. The new resolution strengthens those measures. Vessels sailing to or from North Korean ports may be inspected if suspected of carrying prohibited cargo, and any such cargo found may be seized and disposed of. It is notable that this resolution allows such actions to be taken not just in territorial waters, but on the high seas, where vessels from all countries have the right of free passage. In other words, suspicious vessels sailing to or from North Korean ports may now be inspected anywhere in the world.

Will these sanctions really have any effect? The common-sense answer is that of course they will, but there are no criteria for accurately measuring the effectiveness of sanctions. The Security Council has imposed sanctions in many cases other than those related to North Korea. In no case is measuring their effectiveness a simple matter. For example, if aid that had been provided is cut off, the recipient government's income will decrease in a quantifiable way. If preferential tariffs are ended, again the effects will be reflected in changes in import volume.

However, decreasing the income of the target nation is not the only goal of sanctions. Whether impact beyond that occurs must also be analyzed. Even in order to measure economic effects alone, factors such as degree of dependence on foreign trade, economic scale, trade patterns, foreign currency reserves, and economic systems must be comprehensively considered. Obviously, this is just as complex and difficult as measuring the effects of a domestic economic stimulus package. It should be no surprise when a crystal-clear answer cannot be obtained.

Moreover, the purposes of sanctions are often not economic. The reason the EU ended preferential tariffs for Myanmar was to stop the ruling military junta from ignoring the results of an election and placing Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. In the case of North Korean sanctions as well, economic effects are clearly not the aim. As a general rule, the effectiveness of sanctions should be measured by whether or not their goals are accomplished. Probably no one would object to that.

When this criterion is squarely applied, however, the number of cases where anyone could proudly point to the effectiveness of sanctions should be extremely small. The EU's aim of causing the military junta to rethink its position was not realized, and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest to this day. After India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in 1998, Japan halted yen loans to those countries based on the sanctioning resolution by the Security Council. The goal, of course, was for those countries to halt their development of nuclear weapons, but frustratingly this has not happened.

In fact, setting the goals themselves can be problematic. For example, the recent Security Council resolution on North Korea has the goals of halting that country's nuclear weapons development and of preventing the transport of materials related to weapons of mass destruction. The effectiveness will differ depending upon which goal one attempts to measure. It is necessary to focus on various goals in order to measure the effectiveness of sanctions, but in this case, the problem may lie in the original goals themselves.

In addition to 'goal', 'time' is also an important factor. It often happens that the results of sanctions that at first appear to have little effect change over time.

With objective measurement difficult even through detailed analysis, some may argue that the real point is whether sanctions hurt the target nation. However, in the case of an unusual closed country like North Korea, even that is hard to ascertain. Whether it is true or not, North Korea is said to believe, "If people starve, the nation will not disappear, but if the army is neglected, the nation may be destroyed." If that truly is its belief, then one is forced to think that North Korea has very different standards than other countries. It may be impossible for outsiders to measure that North Korea is hurt.

Others may argue that whether a country is hurt is a psychological matter and therefore it is difficult to discern. They may recommend to employ another measurement such as "the angrier the target is over sanctions, the more effective". This is easily traced from the outside. North Korea reacted vehemently to the new sanctions and bellowed that it would continue its nuclear weapons development and would never return to the six-nation talks. To employ this 'qualitative measurement', one may conclude that perhaps the sanctions are effective. This is, however, not the right way we should take. This 'qualitative measurement' is too unscientific! One must return to objective consideration of the goals of the sanctions, and unfortunately one must admit that they have not been achieved in the case of sanctions against North Korea. But do not worry. We do not know the final result. The effects should be further measured over time.