The Impracticality of the US Sanctions Framework for North Korea

While there have been many US ambassadors to Korea during the 70 or so years since the establishment of the Korean government, few have been talked about as often as Harry Harris, the current ambassador. He has already been at the center of controversy on several occasions due to his outspoken and domineering words and actions, unbecoming for a diplomat. At times this has been attributed to a lack of familiarity with diplomatic methods due to his background in the US CINC Pacific Command. However, this cannot be overlooked so easily because numerous former military figures, including the Secretary of State, have handled diplomatic affairs in the US without any major controversy.

Harris’ latest controversy was a nit-picking comment made in reference to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s move towards promoting inter-Korean relations, on which he said “President Moon’s continued optimism is encouraging. I think his optimism creates hope, and that’s a positive thing,” Harris said. “But with regard to acting on that optimism, I have said that things should be done in consultation with the United States.”

At the time, the South Korean government responded, “North Korea policy falls within the sovereignty of the Republic of Korea,” to which US State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has great faith in the ambassador. This laid the controversy to rest, but one can’t help but think that American logic never seems to change even as time passes by.

The following passage is contained in Glaciers Move, the memoir of former Minister of Foreign Affairs Song Min-soon. “Near the end of 1989, Secretary of State James Backer sent a personal letter to Minister of Foreign Affairs Choi Ho-joong. The crux of this letter was that the US would use every possible method to stop North Korea from developing a nuclear weapon, so Korea should refrain from taking any unilateral action.” At the time, the “unilateral action” that worried the US was Korea developing its own nuclear weapons or taking independent military action. The object of US concern has now shifted to exchanges and cooperation between the two Koreas, which speaks to the changes that have taken place over the past 30 years. However, there is one thing that has not changed. The US’ strongman ideology and mentality of “We will do whatever we like, so you [Korea] should fall in line behind us” is the same now as it was in the past.

Over 30 years of US policy on N. Korea have solved nothing

One might argue that this would be no big deal as long as the problem is solved, but that’s not what has happened. We have heard nothing for more than 30 years since the US promised to resolve the North Korean issue using any means possible. As a result of this, we have been unable to take even a single step away from the doorstep of the North Korean nuclear program. Nevertheless, the US continues to repeat the mantra “Just trust America and wait patiently,” which makes me want to retort, “Exactly how much more time do you need?”

There is no reason to delay Korea’s role any further. The government’s policy is that any exchanges and cooperation between the two Koreas are to be conducted without the framework of international sanctions on North Korea. The examples that Moon mentioned in his New Year’s press conference included individual tourism between the two Koreas, cooperation in border areas, a project to connect railroads, and sporting exchanges. While some of these areas require special approval from the UN, most of these projects can be implemented in accordance with UN sanctions. When the US is even irked by a plan that merely purports to promote inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation within a limited scope, it is almost akin to a demand to make inter-Korean relations completely subordinate to the US’ strategic understanding.It is understandable that the US is concerned about the loosening of sanctions on North Korea. However, North Korea’s history of surviving even in the face of sanctions is evidence that excessive confidence should not be placed in the effect of such sanctions. It cannot be denied that the North has suffered because of the sanctions, and it is no coincidence that leader Kim Jong-un recently stated “In a head-to-head fight, the economic front is the most fundamental.” However, what needs to be understood is that even though the North may be hurt by sanctions, it will not surrender to them. There is a big gap between these two things.

There is also discord amid the US’ own policies. While strengthened attempts to keep China in check may be necessary for the US to maintain its global hegemony, this is likely to cause China to break away from the front lines of sanctioning North Korea. From China’s perspective, the geopolitical value of North Korea as a direct neighbor only grows as US-China relations turn sour. Can sanctions against North Korea be effective without cooperation from China? The US must accept the paradox that its strategy of global hegemony contains elements which inherently limit the effectiveness of sanctions on North Korea.

It would be great if North Korea responded positively to the South Korean government’s proposal for inter-Korean cooperation. Every flowing stream of water starts from a single drop, and I hope that this will open the sluice gates of inter-Korean exchanges, marking the beginning of a voyage towards open seas.

Park Byong-su is an editorial writer for The Hankyoreh in Seoul, where this column first appeared.

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