Can Congress curb North Korea with sanctions, à la Iran?

There's evidence that the sanctions Congress slapped on Iran helped compel Tehran to accept a deal on its nuclear program. But experts differ on whether such a strategy can work with North Korea.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, center, walks with Sen. Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania to the chamber for the vote to impose more stringent sanctions on North Korea, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016. The Senate unanimously passed the legislation later in the day.

Aside from Jeb Bush – who announced at a recent Republican presidential debate that he would consider a preemptive strike to address North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure – most policymakers concur that sanctions are the only realistic option for dealing with leader Kim Jong-un’s nuclear provocations.

But as a frustrated US Congress moves to adopt a new set of economic sanctions aimed at punishing Pyongyang for a recent nuclear detonation and a long-range missile test, experts differ on just how effective unilateral US sanctions can be.

For some, the most effective approach is international sanctions adopted by the United Nations Security Council. That’s because such action would include the participation of China, which is North Korea’s sole benefactor and the country considered to hold the Kim regime’s survival in its hands.

The Security Council is considering a sanctions resolution proposed by the United States, Japan, and South Korea, and it could adopt the measure by the end of the week.

But others see the potential for US sanctions to have considerable impact – particularly measures targeting illicit financial transactions and the North Korean individuals and entities involved in them, as well as the “secondary” financial institutions that facilitate the flow of funds and materials to the North’s nuclear and missile programs.

A wide majority of members of Congress from both parties agree – many of them citing evidence that it was above all the tough sanctions that Congress slapped on Iran that compelled Tehran to accept a deal scaling back its nuclear program.

“People like to say that sanctions don’t work, but you can ask South Africa about the role they played in eliminating apartheid, and more recently there’s the case of Iran,” says Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

“Obama likes to say that North Korea is the most sanctioned country in the world, but that’s not true: There were far more [sanctions] on Iran,” he adds. “And that’s why Iran came back to the negotiating table.”

But others underscore the gaping gulf between Mr. Kim’s “hermit kingdom” and a modern, regionally integrated Iran to illustrate why US sanctions on Pyongyang might not have the same impact.

“The Iran case and the North Korea case are two very different animals,” says George Lopez, an expert on economic sanctions at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “Iran was an open financial player extensively involved in its region, while with North Korea you’re dealing with a closed and very underdeveloped economy.”

The kinds of sanctions Congress is expected to pass are not a bad thing, says Dr. Lopez, who earlier served on the UN’s Panel of Experts for implementing UN sanctions on North Korea. But he says many of the measures will require the Obama administration to do “busy work,” such as regular reporting on the impact of the measures – even though some of them may have little or no impact.

“What Congress is saying to the White House [with its latest sanctions legislation] is that ‘We’re taking North Korea more seriously than you are because we’re going after them across all these other issues and areas, like human rights,” Lopez says. “But I just don’t think any external sanctions are going to do anything to improve human rights in North Korea.”

The House last month passed a comprehensive sanctions bill targeting North Korea, 418 to 2. The Senate vote Wednesday on a similar bill was unanimous – 96 to 0.

But Lopez sees international sanctions as having an impact on the Kim regime, because they would involve the acquiescence and participation of China. “The key factor on anything with North Korea will be China,” he says. “The trick is to figure out a way to shift China’s exasperation with the North to some kind of enforcement” of whatever sanctions the Security Council adopts this week.

The problem that sanctions advocates see is that the multiparty negotiating process at the UN inevitably leads to a watered-down final product. That’s particularly true when the topic is North Korea, they say, because China – a veto-wielding member of the Council – balks at any measure it believes might destabilize the Kim regime and lead to a collapsed state and humanitarian disaster at its door.

“US officials have said they are going in [to negotiations on the latest UN sanctions resolution] with a maximalist approach,” Mr. Klingner says. “But the problem, as it’s always been, is China.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, who opened the Senate debate Wednesday morning on the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, said it was in part China’s “very disappointing” inaction after the North’s recent nuclear test and intercontinental missile launch that prompted congressional action.

But just as disappointing for many in Congress has been the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience” toward the North.

Sanctions advocate Klingner says the US already has plenty of measures on the books, and financial tools at its disposal, to seriously curtail the illicit financial transactions and trading networks that keep the North afloat. The problem – and it’s one he says goes back to the George W. Bush administration – is enforcement.

“The Obama administration has been hitting the snooze button on sanctions, promising the next time to be tougher,” Klingner says. “Pretty much the whole Congress is saying, ‘Enough of that.’ ”

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