The December 2017 sanctions on North Korea: business as usual?

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Many of the steps in the additional sanctions added by the UN Security Council resolution 2379 on December 22nd, 2017, were expected. Targeting oil and petroleum, export incomes, as well as revenues from foreign workers, are all natural steps if the international community wants to pressure North Korea. It’s still rather unclear what the end-goal is, but if sanctions are intended to make things more difficult for the North Korean economy, they can certainly have an impact to that end. These are the main points:

  • Exports of refined petroleum products will be capped at 500,000 barrels per year.
  • Crude oil transfers will be limited to 4 million barrels/year.
  • Within two years, UN member states are to have expelled all North Korean workers and managers.

When analyzing how this will impact North Korea, there are two sides to the story. On the one hand, as with all sanctions against North Korea, China (and to some extent, Russia) would likely not have agreed to them if they had believed that they created a real risk of severe social instability in North Korea that would risk spilling over its own borders. At the same time, it seems like the US intention is to create economic difficulties so severe that the North Korean regime will crack and agree to negotiate the existence of its nuclear deterrent, at least according to the official, outward line. These two objectives appear to be mutually exclusive in the long run.

Moreover, China and Russia appear to have extracted some significant concessions in negotiating the resolution. North Korean workers are to be expelled no later than within two years, which is not an insignificant time frame. Perhaps by then, things will have changed enough for sanctions to be renegotiated. The cap of 4 million barrels is close to what China is commonly estimated to be transferring in terms of crude oil per year to North Korea (3.64 million). So North Korea will hardly be fully starved of oil. Fuel has never been in abundant supply in the country.

Last but not least, smuggling routes are already well-established. Recall Ri Jong-ho’s claims that North Korea buys 300,000 tonnes of fuel products from Russia each year through brokers abroad, largely under the radar. Such transfers are not impossible, but very difficult, to track and stop. Both Russia and China can claim with some truth that they cannot control all sanctions breaches by entities within its borders, particularly enterprises who aren’t all too law-abiding in normal times. Particularly given the poor state of relations between the US and Russia, and the US and China, it is unlikely that either of the two countries will dedicated significant resources to fully track and prevent sanctions breaches, beyond normal procedure. Also, North Korea has been under various forms of sanctions since at least 2006, and even before that, was never an integrated part of established and open world trade. They’ve existed under harsh conditions long enough to learn and adapt their strategies.

On the other hand, North Korea is not immune to sanctions pressure. No country is. Even if smuggling and other ways of getting around sanctions can compensate for some of the losses, transaction costs likely increase. In other words, those who still choose to sell items like fuel to North Korea now have space to demand a higher mark-up for the additional risk. There are also presumably added transaction costs liquefying coal to generate oil.

The government has the resources and the know-how to largely get what they need, but North Korean businesses at the mid- or lower levels will find it much more difficult to keep up with the added costs and effort needed. This is has been true for each sanctions round through this year and last.

Ordinary North Koreans have been impacted by sanctions for long — this did not start with the sanctions that target goods such as oil and fuel. The opportunity cost of what could have been without them was still present. Of course, one can reasonably argue that the fault lies with the regime, for continuing its development of nuclear weapons and missiles, and not with the international community. But that sanctions would somehow not effect North Korean society while hitting against the regime seems implausible.

Lastly, we can note that both exchange rates and rice prices on North Korean markets have decreased over the past few weeks. There may be additional stress present among some spheres of society, but it seems like no major sense of crisis is at hand.



Comments are closed.

An affiliate of 38 North