Tighter sanctions on North Korea: Like squeezing lemon juice from a walnut?

The US wants to tighten sanctions on North Korea. Can it tighten economic sanctions on a country without much of an economy?

Workers and officials clap their hands as North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (not pictured) visits a machinery plant at an undisclosed location in this picture released by North Korea's official news agency June 4. The sign reads 'Let's defend to the last with our lives the core group of the revolution headed by the great Kim Jong-il comrade!'

The current kerfuffle with North Korea raises an interesting point: Is it possible to tighten economic sanctions against a country that doesn’t have much of an economy?

It just seems as if the US and its allies don’t have much leverage there. It’s like threatening to take away Xbox 360 privileges from a pioneer kid who lives without electricity in the woods – the punishment is more theoretical than actual.

Ask US officials this question, and you get a two-part answer:

1. OK, Dean Acheson, you come up with a better idea.

2. They do, too, have an economy – barely.

We looked it up, and it’s true. North Korea has the world’s 97th largest economy, with a gross domestic product (GDP) of about
$40 billion a year, according to the CIA. It’s right behind Cameroon and just ahead of Luxembourg (which is more a countrylet than a country, but still).

Adjust it for the size of the nation’s population, though, and it looks worse. North Korea’s GDP per capita is about $1,700, comparable to that of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. (Zimbabwe – now there’s a country in economic trouble. Inflation there is so bad that by comparison Weimar Germany was run by Ben Bernanke.)

And North Korea’s ability to make stuff – other than fissile material – is declining. It used to export textiles and small appliances to the old Soviet bloc. Now its main exports are fish, wood, and ore. Why? Its power grid isn’t reliable enough to support manufacturing.

Some recent economic sanctions may have annoyed Pyongyang. The UN Security Council last year voted to crack down on exports of luxury goods to North Korea, on the theory it would hurt the ruling elite. Last July, Italy seized two yachts it thought were destined for the Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong-il.

But on the whole, it might be true: Tightening sanctions on North Korea may be like trying to squeeze lemon juice from a walnut. “Western leverage over the DPRK remains limited,” concludes a study from the Congressional Research Service.


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