American pundits, politicians, policy makers, bureaucrats and military officers all need a strong injection of reality regarding the effectiveness of economic sanctions against the DPRK, and their long-term impact at a strategic level. As most rational thinkers on the subject should realize, there are few good options. However, harsh economic sanctions that exasperate confrontation and cut us out of current and future economic opportunities, as well as political and social developments, are the least productive of them all.
Admittedly I am working on the assumption that at this stage the DPRK is a de-facto nuclear state, thus we need to learn to manage it, not attempt to reverse it. A persistent unwillingness to see this, by people within the Washington policy and intelligence establishments, and a persistent state of denial amongst much of the defense community, does not help. I am not saying that we should be blasé about this situation, nor that we can not try to prevent the DPRK from obtaining crucial or otherwise sensitive materials or technology. Our efforts, while not exactly always effective, do act as a break on their technological progress in regards to both nuclear devices as well as missiles. Limited sanctions targeting such technology as well as a concerted effort by the IC to thwart such procurement, is indeed legitimate. Attempting to undermine or cripple the entire economy however, is not a productive strategy.
No doubt the nuclear and missile issues are important, as are human rights (which we seem to ignore currently) but none of these issues can be addressed in and by themselves if we want to make comprehensive progress. Instead we need to look at the entire range of issues regarding the DPRK and discuss them in totality, with our long term national and strategic interests in mind. The current focus on harsh sanctions, but with a concentration only on nuclear and missile issues, misses the more imperative interest we have in helping shape the long term economic, social and political developments in the DPRK. Our policy of strict isolation is seemingly counterproductive as it simply pushes the DPRK further into the Chinese orbit. If we have no opportunity for providing any input, how can we help shape the long-term environment? Moreover, South Korea is moving along on a path of engagement with the North, with the cost being a possible long term weakening of the South Korean-U.S. alliance (in both economic and defense terms). The U.S. is viewed as obstinate; its thinking class is seen as lacking “on the ground knowledge” and as a consequence we risk being left out at any future regional rapprochements or arrangements.
In essence; harsh economic sanctions fail to produce anything productive and only help to generate a small elite oligarch class by enriching select government officials and merchants, increasing Chinese and Russian influence and leverage, and could possibly risk rupture the U.S.–South Korea alliance. Sanctions will not help pry the DPRK open or increase our (Western) leverage or influence. In fact, they do the opposite.
The fallacy of the current policy is on vivid display in Pyongyang, from where I recently returned (elites drinking $300-dollar wines and $40,000-dollar diamond Rolexes are on gaudy display). China is simply gaining more economic influence (and Singapore, with its hard currency shopping centers is in on the game as well) at the expense of everyone else. Once the DPRK economy liberalizes (and it will, the changes year on year are apparent and investment in both consumer goods and infrastructure is clearly visible) China will be in a prime position to strongly influence and even dominate the economy of the DPRK. In effect turning the DPRK into a vassal state. Not even South Korea will be able to close this gap effectively. Thus, in reality, what our sanctions policy is doing, is blocking both our own entrepreneurs and our allies from being part of current economic activity and from being part of what I think will soon be an economic and development bonanza, that will come about from—as well as spawn further—social change. Moreover, this policy, will ensure Chinese continued dominance of the area, and possibly the region if our policies breed enough resentment in South Korea. Make no mistake about it, a liberalized North Korea, or a unified Korean peninsula, will probably not welcome a U.S. military presence–or more accurately China will ensure they do not. If we lose our foothold on the Korean peninsula, we lose not only a strategically placed ally, but also jeopardize our control of access to the open sea as well as put Japan directly on the front line, and at direct risk, forcing it to likely rearm even further. This will not help stabilize NE Asia, nor would it be conducive to peace and stability, and it would not be beneficial to our influence. Consequently, one can only wonder, is there a strategic plan behind our actions? Surely, we should be able to target specific items, firms and individuals, without blanket draconian economic measures? Hence comprehensive engagement and attempting to be part of the social and economic development fabric of the DPRK is in our strategic interest as it is the only way to ensure our ability to have any future input on developments.
As things stand now, realistically, we do not want to see a collapse of the DPRK no matter how evil, it would be massively disruptive. The best we can do, I believe, is negotiate in across the range of issues of concern (this should include human rights)—and without promising to remove our troops from the South—while also simultaneously engaging the DPRK socially and economically. Without that engagement, why would they realistically listen to us? In other words, making the DPRK reliant on China (they will not let it collapse) only serves to limit our negotiation leverage and excludes us and our allies from participating in the North Korean economy—a participation that would in-fact buy us leverage.
No doubt the DPRK is controlled by a horribly abusive government and it does not deserve the admiration nor respect of our, or even its own people, but we still need to deal with the realities at hand and we have an obligation to try to improve the situation. That means looking out for our and our allies long term interests—which at the end of the day are crucial to the future economic wellbeing and safety of the region and ourselves. If we do not do that, but instead singularly focus on twitter optics and missiles, at the expense of our long-term influence and impact on the DPRK’s development, we are not acting in our own best interest.
About the author: Nils G. Bildt, MA-IPS, is the President of CTSS Japan and has Previously Served as an Advisor to Japanese Parliamentarians and Cabinet Members Regarding National Security Issues.