UN Sanctions Against North Korea Won't Work

Stubborn Pyongyang won't listen, will continue a nuclear program

ON Monday the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its report on the inspections of North Korea's nuclear facilities that were conducted in early March. The IAEA Board of Governors referred North Korea to the United Nations Security Council since Pyongyang prevented full access to at least one critical facility during the inspections. Since the North-South Korean talks broke down, the United States, among other nations, is again considering UN sanctions against North Korea through the Security Council.

Sanctions, however, will not solve the problem. Rather, they will increase chances for war on the Korean peninsula, where 36,000 US troops are deployed. They will also undermine the credibility of the nonproliferation regime if sanctions fail.

There are three problems with sanctions: First, they may not be approved. Second, they may not be enforced by all UN members. Third, they won't cause North Korea to stop its nuclear push.

A vote for sanctions must pass the Security Council. China, in particular, has stated it opposes their use. Generally its voting record has supported this position. Beijing considers sanctions ``hegemonic.'' In the North Korea case, China believes sanctions are more likely to complicate the dispute with North Korea, which notoriously does not yield to external pressure.

However, China has abstained from rather than vetoed earlier resolutions. Although it objects to sanctions, China has not stated it would veto them if push comes to shove with Pyongyang. Whether it would abstain in a Security Council vote is thus unclear. But it is clear that Beijing is much more likely to approve sanctions if it feels that all diplomatic options have been explored. That is a reason to continue diplomatic alternatives.

Sanctions will be difficult to enforce. What if China does abstain? The US and most of the international community have no trading relations and thus no leverage with Pyongyang. North Korea, in effect, is already under sanctions.

The only remaining levers are oil, which North Korea receives from China and Iran, and food, which comes from China. China and Iran object to sanctions on the whole and are the least likely members to enforce them. Similarly, attempts to cut off donations of money from Japan would be very difficult to enforce, since they are private contributions often smuggled into North Korea. Sanctions are only as strong as the weakest enforcement efforts.

Finally, sanctions will not convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. It is wishful to believe that Pyongyang will suddenly surrender once sanctions are implemented. The government knows it is not perceived favorably for its current efforts; thus, international condemnation would be meaningless and redundant.

Sanctions are successful only if they can strangle a country's economy, or incite factions to overthrow the government.

The North Korean economy is already struggling. People have been encouraged to eat only two meals a day at most. Most North Korean industry has been shut down because of current energy shortages. Sanctions will not, however, break North Korea's economic back. The governmental philosophy, known as juche or self-reliance, is designed explicitly to prevent the influence of external actions, such as UN sanctions. As mentioned before, few countries have influence and their reliability to enforce sanctions is questionable at best.

Neither will sanctions incite internal factions to overthrow the government. Kim Il Sung has been the leader of North Korea since 1949, when the state was established. That is the longest reign of any ruler anywhere in the world. Within North Korea, he is a living national hero and an epic myth. With the flow of information in Pyongyang monopolized by the government, it will be the West, not Mr. Kim, who will be blamed for whatever shortages may result in North Korea.

Finally, the military would not overthrow Kim either. It is absurd to believe that the Army would overthrow the national hero of North Korea so that it could give up the nuclear weapons it might have, which would be a source of national pride within the military.

Even if these problems could be overcome and sanctions could work, it is unlikely that the international community would have the patience to wait. The regime and the Army will receive priority for whatever food and energy is available. That leaves the ordinary people to bear the brunt of the sanctions. Pictures of starving North Koreans may be ``leaked'' to CNN (North Koreans, of course, would never see these pictures) while the government maintains it will not be ``compelled by hegemonic acts of the US-led international community.''

How long would sanctions continue under a media campaign? They didn't against Iraq. They won't against North Korea either.

Sanctions have been touted as the solution because there are very few ``sticks'' available to solve this crisis that would not create intolerably high risks of war. In other words, they are advocated not because sanctions themselves are a good idea, but because there are no other perceived options available. That is the wrong way to make policy.

Like it or not, the best way to resolve this dispute is to negotiate a solution that convinces Pyongyang it is better served without its nuclear program than with it.

Sanctions are more effective as a threat. Once they are enacted, or vetoed in the UN, that threat is lost. Their actual implementation, however, will not convince North Korea to give up its nuclear card. Sanctions are not a solution to the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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