Why ‘Maximum Pressure’ on North Korea Will Only Strengthen the Regime

Last Friday, President Trump announced a new wave of sanctions against North Korea, in an attempt to curtail the smuggling that goes on between the hermit state and its neighbours, China and Russia.

This comes as part of Trump’s ‘Maximum Pressure’ campaign, espoused by his daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump to the South Korean President, whereby the administration hopes to coerce the DPRK into ceasing its nuclear programmes.

The problem is that economic sanctions have consistently failed to achieve cooperation from North Korea, and they’re unlikely to do so now.

Same Old Story

A relatively young nation, North Korea has been the subject of heavy sanctions since withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003. Much like a deep-sea fish, the North Korea of today doesn’t really know what it’s like not to live under extreme pressure.

Kim Jong-Un’s government has certainly become rather adept at surviving under extreme sanctions.

As such, the Trump administration’s plan to continue tightening the economic clamp must come to the government of the North as business-as-usual. In focussing North Korea-policy around sanctions, the Trump administration may actually be playing directly into the regime’s hands.

After all, Kim Jong-Un’s government has certainly become rather adept at surviving under extreme sanctions, and even seems to be able to bypass them to a certain extent. A study by the Institute for Science and International Security reports that 49 countries overall have been found violating UN sanctions and trading with the North.

Of course, of these 49, none even come close to the significance of China in supporting the North Korean economy. Although China has been somewhat more vocal recently in condemning the DPRK’s nuclear tests, trade between the two still amounts to around 90% of North Korea’s total trade.

The Trump administration’s new sanctions are therefore likely to be rather ineffectual, at best, unless something can be done to sharply curtail Chinese trade with North Korea. This, however, would be extremely difficult, since China has far different priorities with the DPRK than the rest of the world.

Adverse Effects

Moreover, from the efficacy of sanctions, the approach itself presents some rather heavy moral questionability. While the goal of sanctioning may be to put pressure on the government, in reality, it is the average citizen who feels the effects.

The goal of sanctioning is to pressure the government but, in reality, it is the average citizen who feels the effects.

Rüdiger Frank, an economist and expert on North Korea, explains in a 2006 paper how sanctions, in only affecting the supply side of the targeted economy, are likely to raise the prices of high demand, inelastic goods such as basic foodstuffs, fuel, and medicines.

To the wealthy government elite of the DPRK, this represents a far less serious issue than it does to the millions of North Koreans living in poverty. To these people, sanctions may entirely block access to basic necessities. To those in power, it may represent little more than an increased grocery bill.

In denying the population access to basic goods, however, sanctions may even be assisting in cementing the regime’s grip on power. A state infamous for its propaganda and control on all information available to its citizens, the regime is able to spin its economic hardships into a patriotic tale of a nation oppressed by the American imperialist machine.

This is an effect known as the ‘rally around the flag’ - the North Korean state can blame the poverty endured by its people on the West and its sanctions, thus driving up support for the regime’s militant anti-West policy. Essentially, sanctions may be giving the Kim regime all the power it needs to maintain its firm grasp on control.

Taking the Road Less Travelled

The US is now in a position to attempt a diplomatic approach.

With South Korean President Moon Jae-In having received a rare invitation to visit Pyongyang from Kim Yo-Jong, sister of leader Kim Jong-Un, it seems as though the governments of both sides of the peninsula are warming up to the idea of diplomacy over aggression.

The regime also seems open to the possibility of talks with the United States, with Vice Chairman of the Workers’ Party Central Committee Kim Yong-Chol expressing the North Korean government’s willingness at the Winter Olympics closing ceremony in Pyeongchang.

While more sanctions will likely bring little prospects for future peace, and may even have adverse effects, the United States is now in a position to attempt a new, diplomatic approach. With nothing to lose and everything to gain, the Trump administration should consider ditching their outdated ‘maximum pressure’ model and make real progress towards a peaceful solution to the Korean problem.