Sanctions and Defiance in North Korea

Sanctions on North Korea have failed.

North Korea has now been sanctioned five times by the United Nations Security Council for its nuclear and missile tests: resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), 2094 (2013) and 2270 (2016). UNSC Resolution 2270 is the strongest one yet, spelling out in great detail the proscribed goods and requiring that all parties neither import them from nor export them to North Korea. Each resolution obliges the members to carry out the terms of the sanctions and (as the April 15 press statement of the UNSC says) “facilitate a peaceful and comprehensive solution through dialogue.” This is a case of mission impossible for two fundamental reasons: the sanctions will not work, and the fact of them impedes any chance for a “peaceful and comprehensive solution.”

Foremost among the obstacles to an effective North Korea sanctions regime is smuggling along the China-DPRK (North Korea) border. Military items disguised as ordinary goods seem easily able to evade detection thanks to inconsistent inspection by border guards, bribery, false declarations, and North Korean firms based in China that actually belong to military-run trading companies. Since these practices are surely well known to the Chinese authorities, it seems fair to assume they have no strong interest in preventing or at least substantially reducing it – something they could accomplish with a more intensive border inspection process. That China is not doing so no doubt reflects its oft-stated position that the North Korean nuclear issue is the result of other countries’ policies, not China’s, hence that resolving it is others’ responsibility, mainly the US.

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