North Korea Sanctions: Isolating the Isolated

North Korean poster

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.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus and the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands.