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Why sanctions have failed

Gabriel DomínguezJanuary 7, 2016

As the UN considers imposing more sanctions on North Korea following its latest nuclear test, DW examines how effective such measures have been in deterring Pyongyang from advancing its nuclear arms program.

New York UN-Sicherheitsrat Sitzung
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/F. Franklin II

Following North Korea's alarming announcement that it conducted its fourth nuclear test, the UN Security Council (UNSC) agreed on Wednesday, January 6, that it would consider new measures to punish Pyongyang.

Supported by China, North Korea's sole major ally, the 15-member council strongly condemned the test and said it would work on a new UN draft resolution, strengthening several sets of sanctions that have been imposed on the secretive communist regime since it first tested a nuclear device in 2006.

The council's announcement was followed a day later by the US, South Korea and Japan pledging to secure a comprehensive, hard-hitting international response.

Although many experts doubt Pyongyang's claims that it has successfully tested a "miniaturized" hydrogen or thermonuclear bomb - the explosive yield was reportedly even smaller than that of the North's third nuclear test in 2013 - there has been no independent verification, and this could take days or even weeks to get.

But what already seems clear is that the regime remains committed to defying the international community by upgrading its nuclear weapons capabilities - a stance the UNSC will want to show that it won't tolerate.

What have the sanctions achieved?

But there is also growing skepticism among experts that imposing more international sanctions is the best way to deal with the nuclear threat in the Korean Peninsula. North Korea is already one of the most heavily sanctioned countries in the world, both by the UN and individual states. Yet as experts point out, these sanctions have been not only been costly but also technically difficult to implement.

Karte Nordkorea Punggye-ri Englisch
The USGS reported a 5.1-magnitude seismic event near the Punggye-ri site where the North had conducted nuclear tests

And since the regime deems its nuclear program to be essential for its national security (and therefore non-negotiable), analysts agree that their effectiveness in terms of non-proliferation, preventing nuclear tests and even the launch of ballistic missiles, has been limited at best.

In order to understand the resons behind this it is important to take a look at the nature of the sanctions imposed so far. Bernt Berger, head of Asia Program at the Stockholm-based Institute for Security & Development Program (ISDP), explains that under UN sanctions North Korea is prohibited from carrying out a number of activities, including supporting nuclear programs through financial transactions and providing related materials, equipment, goods and technology.

Moreover, the sanctions call for the suspension of the regime's ballistic missile program, the reversal of the country's withdrawal from the 2003 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the return to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. They also target North Korean individuals, companies and agencies and their international financial activities.

Such measures are viewed by experts such as Katharine Moon, Chair of Korea Studies at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, as international tools designed to punish for illegal behavior, and practically speaking, to make it more difficult for Pyongyang to attract international investment, as well as access funds, transport routes, and materials for the nuclear program.

Implementation challenges

But as analyst Berger points out, their implementation poses a range of challenges. "Due to the increasing complexity and number of sanctions regimes, many states, especially small ones, lack implementation and enforcement capacities [sic.]. This is often further complicated by weak financial institutions, poor customs and export control systems and a lack of awareness among companies and officials," wrote Berger in a brief for the European Union Institute for Security Studies.

Speaking to DW, he added that "intelligence-sharing, communication, decision-making as well as international capacity-building within the UN are often too slow to reach full potential," thus undermining the effectiveness of the sanctions.

Pyongyang, in turn, has exploited these shortcomings by, for instance, engaging in a secretive barter trade system.

Analysts such as Hugh Griffiths, a specialist on illicit trade at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told DW the impoverished nation has a track record of repairing, upgrading or servicing military equipment for states that use old Soviet or Chinese weaponry in exchange for commodities. For instance, in 2010 the South African navy intercepted a shipment of North Korean tank engines at sea which were being transported from Pyongyang to the armed forces of Congo-Brazzaville, said Griffiths.

The China factor

But perhaps even more important are Pyongyang's ties with neighboring China. According to David Albright, a North Korea expert and president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, a large number of goods flow into North Korea from Chinese private companies who do business with the regime.

"The existing sanctions have not had a major impact on Pyongyang nuclear program mainly because China does not enforce them or for that matter its own export control laws. North Korea can buy what its needs rather freely in China, including German products intended for use in China but which are secretly and illegally diverted to North Korea," Albright told DW. "As it is now, North Korea has little trouble buying in China what it needs for its programs," he added.

Brookings expert Moon has a similar view. "While the UN sanctions have made access to funds and goods more difficult, they have caused no lasting and severe damage as North Koreans have become very resourceful and entrepreneurial at bartering and trading on the black market," said Moon. "One could say that sanctions encourage them to take more individual risks as well as seek other ways to make money."

Yongbyon Atomanlage Nordkorea 2008
North Korea announced in September it had restarted its long-mothballed Yongbyon reactorImage: Getty Images

Why conduct nuclear tests

Given the opacity of the regime, it is very difficult to credibly assess where the North Korea's strategic weapons programs stand at any particular moment, so even basic questions about its nuclear weapons capabilities are shrouded in considerable uncertainty. But the latest test seems to suggest Pyongyang continues to invest in its nuclear arms arsenal.

In fact, the regime announced in September it had restarted its long-mothballed Yongbyon reactor, and satellite images revealed that the country was boosting its uranium extraction capacity. Last April, Joel Wit, the founder of 38 North website of the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told DW Pyongyang was on the verge of rapidly increasing its nuclear weapons stockpile.

In this context, experts argue the nuclear tests have several purposes. For instance, besides advancing the arms program, the latest test - which is likely to hurt ties with China and Russia - will likely help North Korean leader Kim Jong Un cement his status and grip on power.

Moreover, the tests are a way for Pyongyang to demand attention not only from the West, but especially from its key ally, China, conveying the message that it is doing things on its own and will not bow down to pressures or advice from Beijing. As analyst Berger explains, the regime is determined to build a the nuclear deterrent as a means to free resources for economic development, counter international containment and counter-balance perceived security threats, particularly from the US.

Calls on China to enforce sanctions

But perhaps the most pressing question in this regard is whether a new set of international sanctions, as recently suggested by the US, South Korea and Japan, would really force Pyongyang into giving up its nuclear weapons program or whether more fundamental dialogues and negotiations would be more efficient. Experts are divided on this issue.

Analysts such as Albright advocate more effective sanctions, arguing that if designed right, financial and secondary sanctions could have a significant impact on North Korea's ability to conduct trade in China and other nations.

For example, Chinese banks handling financial transfer for sales to North Korean nuclear programs could be sanctioned under US laws, he says. "This approach may require the US to pass legislation that will impose US sanctions on those doing business with North Korea's nuclear, missile, and military programs, in many cases Chinese suppliers and banks," said Albright.

Such a move would also serve to pressure China to act responsibly, he added. "After all, it is private Chinese companies and banks doing this business with the regime, and not the Chinese government. So, improving the enforcement of Chinese trade controls and UNSC sanctions should be in China's national interest," the expert underscored.

In the meantime, Albright believes that countries such as Germany should demand publicly that China provide assurances that German goods intended for China do not end up in North Korea.

For its part, China has said it firmly opposes the latest nuclear test, and shown a possible willingness to allow stronger UN sanctions. It also urged Pyongyang to honor its commitment to denuclearization, and to cease any action that may deteriorate the situation.

Kim Jong Un Nordkorea
The latest nuclear test will likely help Kim Jong Un cement his status and grip on powerImage: Reuters/KCNA

Time for a new approach?

But there are analysts who view the latest incident as evidence that sanctions are simply not the best approach. "The continuation of the North's nuclear weapons program clearly reflects the failure of the international policy of isolating and imposing sanctions on North Korea, as such actions have failed to restrain the country's nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs," Tariq Rauf, director of the disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation program at SIPRI, told DW.

According to Rauf, the adoption of additional UNSC resolutions condemning North Korea would serve only little useful purpose other than "to demonstrate the impotence and ineffectiveness of current policies."

The analyst argues that just as engagement with Iran (2013-2015) and Libya (2003) regarding their nuclear program resulted in favorable outcomes, it is essential to resume engagement with North Korea.

This is why Rauf stresses the best way forward is that of full engagement and an easing of sanctions in return for nuclear restraint by Pyongyang.

Patience and perseverance

Analyst Berger has a similar view. He believes the most meaningful way forward is to set up a roadmap which not only involves the needs and demands of all parties, but also includes key issues such as denuclearization and the peace process.

In 2003, so-called Six Party Talks were launched aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program. However, the negotiations involving North and South Korea, Japan, China, the United States and Russia reached a stalemate in 2009 when Pyongyang walked out.

"So far the agreements that came out of the Six Party Talks were too focused on the nuclear issue and too little on reconciliation. A renewed dialogue, based on a comprehensive set of issues and the constructive participation of key players such as North and South Korea, China and the US would be a yardstick for how serious the parties and their efforts actually are," said Berger.

Analyst Moon agrees, stressing that no resolution on the nuclear issue can be achieved without "bold, patient, and persevering face-to-face diplomacy."