Cutting Off the Lifelines of North Koreans? That’s Called a Siege, Not “Sanctions”

Last winter, Patrick Cockburn called attention to one of the more disturbing effects of the sanctions against North Korea—their “ghost ships” (in “It’s Time We Saw Economic Sanctions for What They Really Are—War Crimes” . Over the past several years, fishing vessels have been washing up on the western shores of Northeastern Japan in larger and larger numbers. Like a ghost ship from the film the “Pirates of the Caribbean,” some have “skeletonized” remains on board. On others, Japanese find survivors who are desperate for help. A gruesome case of heads found severed from their bodies was discovered the other day.

The problem seems to be getting worse:

2013—80 boats

2017—104 boats

2018—225 boats

2019—at least 156 boats

For what purpose do these men gamble on small, unseaworthy boats, out on the open sea, in an expanse of 600 miles between North Korea and Japan? “Dead men tell no tales”? From the perspective of one Japanese fisherman who witnessed such North Koreans fishing from close up, “taking such a boat out to sea is suicide”. The mass media just keep telling us the fairy tale, that it is all the fault of one man, the Wicked Dictator of the North. But still, a pattern can be detected, month after month, year after year, in which more North Korean nuclear and missile tests lead to more “tightening” of international sanctions, which leads to more “pressure to boost agriculture and food supplies”, which leads to more fishermen from North Korea venturing farther out in fragile boats.

None of the sanctions were supposed to increase the severity of food shortages in North Korea, but by now we have years of anecdotal evidence such as “Sanctions Are Hurting Aid Efforts and Ordinary People in North Korea” and piles of U.N. and human rights organization-type reports, that demonstrate that some of the sanctions are doing just that. The governments of the United States and other rich and powerful countries are causing a humanitarian catastrophe in North Korea, just as they have done in Iraq. And we, the citizens of those countries, are paying them to do it.

Ineffective Sanctions

It goes without saying that some sanctions are good and some are bad. For example, sanctions that kill one million people in Iraq are bad, while sanctions that narrowly target criminals who have committed the “supreme international crime” such as George W. Bush and Tony Blair, and that do not hurt anyone else, would be good.

In the case of the sanctions against North Korea, one must consider the original goals. Sending more ghost ships to Japan’s shores was not the stated intention of any of the sanctions. They were supposed to achieve goals such as 1) toppling the heads of state of North Korea, 2) punishing the government of North Korea for launching missiles, and 3) promoting peace and human rights.

There is no need to waste time pondering whether the first goal has been achieved, as, for better or worse, three-quarters of a century have demonstrated the survivability of the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Even one of the most irresponsible and conspicuous defenders of that claim, David Sanger of the New York Times, admitted as much: “I took a long, 10-day train trip through North Korea in 1992, or so, and wrote a New York Times magazine piece whose basic thesis was this country would be gone in a few years. Well, you can see how wrong I was.”

Yes. And looking back on the three-quarters of a century of U.S. military violence around the world, it would be surprising if all the Washington-led sanctions were actually achieving the third goal. Setting aside that one for now, however, let us consider the second goal. There is hard evidence that it has not been achieved, even if it appears in the mass media that it has. The effects of sanctions in North Korea can actually be seen just by looking at the nighttime lights of North Korea, according to a serious study of its economy by the Stanford economist Yong Suk Lee (“International Isolation and Regional Inequality: Evidence from Sanctions on North Korea,” 2017). He writes, “Pyongyang as the hometown of the dictator, as well as communist party members, bureaucrats, military and cooperative leaders, represents the North Korean elites. Though sanctions often aim to punish the target country’s elites, the results [of this research] indicate that the populace in the marginalized regions may be the ones who suffer more.”

Most of the country is dark at night due to the lack of lights, even with the urban beautification campaign that their head of state Kim Jong-un has implemented. “The dark area between brightly lit South Korea and China is North Korea. Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, is lit as if an island in the ocean.” Lee studied U.S. military satellite data and found that the “difference in nighttime lights between the capital Pyongyang and the rest of the country increases by 1.9% with an additional sanctions event.” In other words, diachronic changes in nighttime luminosity demonstrate that sanctions are stimulating the economy of Pyongyang, in fact, and concentrating even more wealth and power in the hands of government elites.

Inhumane Sanctions

“Trump’s push for ‘maximum pressure’ resulted in a global and almost total ban on North Korea-related trade, investment, or financial transactions. This effectively put the whole country under siege, with all the consequences this implies for the innocents within.” These are the words of Henri Feron, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and one of the authors of a new study entitled “The Human Costs and Gendered Impact of Sanctions on North Korea”. See the video here.

Yong Suk Lee would probably concur, at least about the “already marginalized hinterlands.” He finds that the gap in wealth between places like that and Pyongyang is getting worse. And even without any special study, it seems obvious that women are hurt when exports of textiles are banned, since textiles is an industry in which the overwhelming majority of workers are women. Resolution 2375 of September 2017 targeted textiles.

Perhaps there are certain sanctions that hurt the autocrats of North Korea without hurting the people, but looking at the overall situation, neither the scholar Feron nor the journalist Cockburn mince their words. They both call the sanctions a “siege.” Such is their cumulative effect. Cockburn goes further and posits that when the sanctions amount to “collective punishment of millions of innocent civilians who die, sicken or are reduced to living off scraps from the garbage dumps,” the siege constitutes a “war crime.” Another sense in which a siege can constitute a war crime is when they are used to start wars, e.g., how sanctions were used to provoke the Empire of Japan to strike Us first. One could draw many parallels between North Korea today and the Empire of Japan in 1941.

The study “The Human Costs” breaks the news to us ever so gently, but even in that cautious document, one finds evidence of a siege: “There is increasing evidence that the sanctions regime on the DPRK is having adverse humanitarian consequences, even as the relevant UN resolutions explicitly state this is not the intention. The UN Panel of Experts has determined that the ‘[UN] sectoral sanctions are affecting the delivery of humanitarian-sensitive items’ and that their implementation has ‘had an impact on the activities of international humanitarian agencies working to address chronic humanitarian needs in the country.’”

“Has had an impact” = “has made it extremely difficult to help” North Koreans. A similar message about the obstacles that humanitarian organizations must overcome are evidenced, too, in the film about the Eugene Bell Foundation “Out of Breath”. They have had some success, in spite of many setbacks caused by sanctions, to help North Koreans deal with stubborn strains of TB.

The items prohibited under Resolution 2397 (December 2017) include “irrigation equipment and prefabricated greenhouses; medical appliances, such as ultrasound machines and orthopaedic appliances for persons with disabilities; and any item with a metallic component, including ‘screws, bolts, nails, staples’ that are ‘often components of humanitarian-sensitive goods.’” Do these things sound like parts that are essential for nukes or other WMD—materials or technology that North Korea does not already have?

This year the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) estimate that “10 million people are food insecure and in need of urgent food assistance.”

Conclusion: We Eat and Drink While Tomorrow They Die

Cockburn wrote, “Economic sanctions are like a medieval siege but with a modern PR apparatus attached to justify what is being done. A difference is that such sieges used to be directed at starving out a single town or city while now they are aimed at squeezing whole countries into submission.” Indeed. Again, one only needs look at the documented effects of sanctions on Iraq to see their poor track record. Cockburn and Henri Feron use the word “siege” to convey the fact that the overall impact of sanctions on North Korea is to starve and, during the bitter winter of the Korean Peninsula, freeze vulnerable sectors of the population to death. There may be a good argument for certain types of sanctions, such as those that would block the sale of critical parts of weapons in a nuclear weapons program—which would not apply to Iran since, unlike North Korea, they do not have such a program —but there are no good arguments for prohibiting the sale of “humanitarian-sensitive items,” such as syringes; agricultural machinery including tractors and pumping equipment; and fuel. Cutting off these lifelines of the vulnerable will only hurt them, not the elites. For example, “The Human Costs” mentions that “shortages of fuel, electricity and pumping equipment limit the ability to irrigate, reducing yields and making crops susceptible to extreme weather shocks, such as droughts and heatwaves.”

Anyone can see that North Koreans need help. Instead of demanding that their government strip down naked, as Trump did in Hanoi, we could demand of the U.N. that they discontinue Resolutions 2375 and 2397 (for starters), and of the U.S. that they follow through with Trump’s promise and actually provide North Korea with a security guarantee.

Compared to the U.S., North Korea is a small, poor country with a micro military budget. The notion that they might strike the U.S. first is absurd. The demand at Hanoi—the sentence that begins by saying they must fully dismantle their “nuclear infrastructure, chemical and biological warfare program…”—was ridiculous. The U.S. has so much to gain and so little to lose by giving North Korea what it wants, and what the people need.

The sanctions against North Korea are firmly in place. True. But this is not because everyone loves Washington and wants to cooperate with them. They are firmly in place because U.S.-based multinational corporations control about half of all the world’s wealth. Governments and businesses around the world cooperate with Washington because they have to. Most of the population of North Korea are unfairly besieged and harassed by the Washington-coerced “international community.” As one can see from the assassination of Iraq’s Qassim Soleimani, the Bully is completely out of control. We citizens have the power and the responsibility to force those in power to seek a reasonable and humane solution to a crisis of their own making. Burying our heads in the sand will leave the blood of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children on our hands.

Many thanks to Stephen Brivati for comments, suggestions, and editing.

Joseph Essertier is an associate professor at the Nagoya Institute of Technology in Japan.