FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

North Korea Sanctions: Isolating the Isolated

by

Photo by David Stanley | CC BY 2.0

North Korea has prided itself over the years on remaining relatively detached from the international community.

During the Cold War, for instance, it refused to become a cog in the Soviet trading system that would have relegated it to supplying raw materials to and purchasing finished products from the imperial center. Instead, it remained economically independent and invested in manufacturing its own products.

When South Korea decided to tie its own economy to global capitalism, becoming a major exporting power, North Korea kept its distance from international finance. It created a special economic zone in the northeast of the country, changed its laws to facilitate foreign investment, and organized trade fairs to sell its products to the world’s customers. Eventually, as a result of the collapse of the state distribution system, it even tolerated private markets within the country.

But the regime eyed the free market warily, anxious that it would undermine the authority of the central government. It made accommodations to capitalism, but only on its own terms.

Geopolitically, North Korea has also avoided entangling alliances. It maintains fraternal relations with China but has repeatedly disregarded Chinese advice and bristled at Chinese pressure. Ditto with Russia. No country has been allowed to impinge on North Korea’s sovereignty.

It’s not that North Korea prefers isolation, but it certainly has become accustomed to it. Nor is the country entirely isolated: the elite is aware of the outside world while a good deal of information has leaked to the rest of the population via flash drives and word of mouth.

Given the high degree of comfort that North Korea has with its state of isolation, it’s somewhat odd that the United States can’t think of any other way of dealing with the country than to increase that isolation.

The U.S. Congress has just passed yet another round of economic sanctions against North Korea. The sanctions against Pyongyang will once again attempt to restrict the amount of money flowing into the country by targeting companies – primarily Chinese – that are importing North Korean coal or serving as conduits for financial transfers.

Meanwhile, at the UN level, Washington and Beijing are working on another set of sanctions that blacklist additional individuals and companies connected to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

Despite all these sanctions over the decades, the North Korean economy actually grew last year – by nearly 4 percent. International trade grew by 5 percent.

So, sanctions have not changed North Korean behavior – the country just conducted its second successful ICBM test. Nor have sanctions wiped out the North Korean economy or led to the collapse of the North Korean regime.

If sanctions do begin to have some effect on the economy – by reducing the amount of money North Korea makes on coal exports, for instance – they won’t likely affect the only North Korean activity that the United States really cares about. As East Asia specialist John Delury has written, “if Kim and his generals have to tighten their belts, the nuclear and missile programs are about the last things they will cut.”

As new sanctions make their way through Congress and the UN, the State Department has joined in the game as well. It has announced that it will no longer allow U.S. tourists to visit North Korea. This comes in retaliation for North Korea’s treatment of Otto Warmbier, an American student detained in Pyongyang and only released to come home to die.

Given the relatively few Americans who visit North Korea as tourists, the economic impact of the ban on North Korea will be minimal.

Isolation, meanwhile, works to the benefit of the North Korean authorities. The government in Pyongyang has long argued that the United States in particular is out to crush the North Korean system and its people. It has exploited the “rally around the flag” effect of nationalism to sustain at least grudging support for the North Korean system even as the population loses its reverence for the ruling Kim family. It has turned isolation to its advantage to reduce, though not eliminate, what it believes to be corrupting influences from outside.

North Korea is not Russia or Iran (two other countries against which Congress wants to increase sanctions). Both these other countries are very much dependent on the global economy. Both of these countries have significant middle classes that have grown accustomed to a certain level of international engagement and have demonstrated in the streets in the past when deprived of the benefits of this access. Nobody is going to show up in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square to protest an economic downturn and demand a change in government.

So, if isolation is not a particularly effective strategy, what might work instead?

The only effective way of changing North Korea’s behavior is to embed it in the international community, subjecting it to international rules and regulations and tying its economy to the global market. Of course, negotiators will present this economic engagement as a quid pro quo for North Korea freezing its nuclear program and imposing a moratorium on missile launches. But the bottom line is that engagement would be more effective than isolation even if U.S. negotiators received no guarantees from North Korea in return.

Only through this kind of economic and geopolitical engagement will the actual nature of the North Korean system begin to change over time. And only through this kind of engagement will the international community acquire any meaningful leverage over Pyongyang. Indeed, this is what North Korea fears the most: the “poisoned apple” of engagement.

The sad truth is that the United States also views engagement as poisonous. The short-term challenge, as we all try to prevent war on the Korean peninsula, is to demonstrate that the apple of engagement is a healthy alternative to the junk food of isolationism that the leaderships in Washington and Pyongyang have favored for all too long.

More articles by:

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus, where this article originally appeared.

Weekend Edition
February 23, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Richard D. Wolff
Capitalism as Obstacle to Equality and Democracy: the US Story
Paul Street
Where’s the Beef Stroganoff? Eight Sacrilegious Reflections on Russiagate
Jeffrey St. Clair
They Came, They Saw, They Tweeted
Andrew Levine
Their Meddlers and Ours
Charles Pierson
Nuclear Nonproliferation, American Style
Joseph Essertier
Why Japan’s Ultranationalists Hate the Olympic Truce
W. T. Whitney
US and Allies Look to Military Intervention in Venezuela
John Laforge
Maybe All Threats of Mass Destruction are “Mentally Deranged”
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: an American Reckoning
David Rosen
For Some Reason, Being White Still Matters
Robert Fantina
Nikki Haley: the U.S. Embarrassment at the United Nations
Joyce Nelson
Why Mueller’s Indictments Are Hugely Important
Joshua Frank
Pearl Jam, Will You Help Stop Sen. Tester From Destroying Montana’s Public Lands?
Dana E. Abizaid
The Attack on Historical Perspective
Conn Hallinan
Immigration and the Italian Elections
George Ochenski
The Great Danger of Anthropocentricity
Pete Dolack
China Can’t Save Capitalism from Environmental Destruction
Joseph Natoli
Broken Lives
Manuel García, Jr.
Why Did Russia Vote For Trump?
Geoff Dutton
One Regime to Rule Them All
Torkil Lauesen – Gabriel Kuhn
Radical Theory and Academia: a Thorny Relationship
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Work of Persuasion
Thomas Klikauer
Umberto Eco and Germany’s New Fascism
George Burchett
La Folie Des Grandeurs
Howard Lisnoff
Minister of War
Eileen Appelbaum
Why Trump’s Plan Won’t Solve the Problems of America’s Crumbling Infrastructure
Ramzy Baroud
More Than a Fight over Couscous: Why the Palestinian Narrative Must Be Embraced
Jill Richardson
Mass Shootings Shouldn’t Be the Only Time We Talk About Mental Illness
Jessicah Pierre
Racism is Killing African American Mothers
Steve Horn
Wyoming Now Third State to Propose ALEC Bill Cracking Down on Pipeline Protests
David Griscom
When ‘Fake News’ is Good For Business
Barton Kunstler
Brainwashed Nation
Griffin Bird
I’m an Eagle Scout and I Don’t Want Pipelines in My Wilderness
Edward Curtin
The Coming Wars to End All Wars
Missy Comley Beattie
Message To New Activists
Jonah Raskin
Literary Hubbub in Sonoma: Novel about Mrs. Jack London Roils the Faithful
Binoy Kampmark
Frontiersman of the Internet: John Perry Barlow
Chelli Stanley
The Mirrors of Palestine
James McEnteer
How Brexit Won World War Two
Ralph Nader
Absorbing the Irresistible Consumer Reports Magazine
Cesar Chelala
A Word I Shouldn’t Use
Louis Proyect
Marx at the Movies
Osha Neumann
A White Guy Watches “The Black Panther”
Stephen Cooper
Rebel Talk with Nattali Rize: the Interview
David Yearsley
Market Music
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail