Will Economic Sanctions Have Impact on N. Korea?

Korea Times
Chang Se-moon

Obviously, it is important to know the correct answer to this question. Sanctions that have no impact on North Korea’s economy will not change the behavior of North Korean leaders. If sanctions do have a significant impact, the possibility that North Korean leaders may be tempted to resolve the pending security issues through negotiations exists.
In answering the question, however, we need to keep in mind what the British economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) said: “The theory of economics does not furnish a body of settled conclusions immediately applicable to policy. It is a method rather than a doctrine, an apparatus of the mind, a technique of thinking which helps its possessor draw correct conclusions.’’ In plain English, Keynes stressed an unbiased economic way of thinking that could help us draw correct conclusions. In other words, until we review all the facts with an open mind we should not make up our minds.

This is exactly what we will do by assessing the impacts of economic sanctions on North Korea.

The first question that comes to mind is which sanctions are we talking about. If we review U.S. sanctions on North Korea since the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, there would be too many sanctions imposed on North Korea to be practical. There are three important sanctions that are still in effect, however. One is the U.S. denial of a Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status on North Korea’s exports.

This sanction was imposed on North Korea’s exports to the United States on September 1, 1951, following the outbreak of the Korean War. MFN tariffs are the lowest tariffs that are levied on imports to the U.S. Over 99 percent of imports to the United States qualify for the MFN tariffs. Without MFN status, tariffs on North Korean exports to the United States are so high that North Korea simply cannot even imagine exporting anything to the United States.

The second of the three important sanctions stemmed from the bombing of Korean Air 858 by North Korean agents on November 29, 1987. The explosion killed 115 innocent passengers and crew members. On January 20, 1988, North Korea was placed on the list of countries that supported international terrorism according to the U.S. Export Administration Act of 1979.

The importance of this sanction is that placement on the list has made it impossible for North Korea to borrow money from international financial institutions including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Like the denial of MFN status, the placement of North Korea on the list of countries supporting international terrorism continues to this date.

The third of these three key sanctions relates to tightening of North Korea’s illegal financial transactions, which culminated in Banco Delta Asia’s termination of business dealings with North Korea as of February 16, 2006. You may know that Banco Delta Asia had long been suspected of handling North Korea’s illicit activities overseas such as laundering of counterfeit U.S. dollars and sales of illegal drugs

Banco Delta Asia is located in Macao, which is a Special Administrative District of China. Tightening of North Korean financial transactions was extended to North Korean trade during 2006. This added pressure on North Korea originated from U.N. Resolution 1540 following North Korea’s test-launching of long-range missiles on July 5, 2006, as well as from U.N. Resolution 1718 which followed North Korea’s nuclear test on October 9, 2006.

Are these sanctions having an impact on North Korea’s economy? Perhaps, a more accurate question is whether these sanctions are placing enough pressure on North Korean leaders to reconsider the possibility of returning to the negotiation table?

One aspect is the status of North Korea’s trade deficit. As you probably know, North Korea buys from other countries much more than it sells to other countries. When the amount of imports exceeds the amount of exports it’s called a trade deficit. North Korea’s annual trade deficit averaged about $800 million from 2003 to 2005. This figure does not include North Korea’s trade deficit against South Korea, since South Korea appears to consider any financial support to the North as a long-term investment rather than a trade deficit.

How has North Korea been paying for the trade deficit? The ways have been unique. Almost the entire deficit appears to have been financed by weapons sales, illicit activities, and funds flowing from South Korea through joint projects.

In fact, a study by the Korean Institute for Defense Analysis indicates that full implementation of U.N. Resolution 1718 would cause North Korea to lose just about the same amount ($700 million to $1 billion) by stopping exports of weapons and illegal drugs and counterfeit money.

The Economist Intelligence Unit is quoted to have estimated in 2003 that “North Korea earned as much as $100 million a year from counterfeit money, while in 2005, a U.S. task force estimated that “$45 million to $60 million in Pyongyang’s counterfeit currency (primarily in U.S. $100 bills) is in circulation,’’ reportedly, including some in Seoul’s Namdaemun Market.

Assuming that recently added sanctions will cause North Korea to lose about $800 million that it has been earning overseas each year, the next interesting question is how North Korea will pay for the annual trade deficit of $800 million in the future? If North Korea does not pay for its imports, other countries will refuse to sell products to North Korea and the North Korean economy will suffer.

North Korea cannot borrow from world financial institutions because of the 1988 U.S. sanctions that branded North Korea as one of countries supporting international terrorism. They cannot use the money from foreign direct investment because China and Korea are the only two countries that have been willing to invest in North Korea, but the combined amount is not even close to paying for the annual trade deficit.

Think of it this way. If you borrow money every year, and lenders believe that your ability to pay off the debt is rapidly declining, will lenders continue to lend you money? Not likely. With sanctions adversely affecting North Korea’s ability to pay for imports, North Korea will find it increasingly difficult to buy what it needs. The breaking point may not be imminent, but the future is predictable.

This is what I think will happen. North Korea will ask China to increase its foreign direct investment in North Korea by giving China more incentives for such investment. These incentives may include low taxes and free land. North Korea will ask South Korea to send more money.

For instance, as of July 1, 2004, Hyundai Asan and North Korea set the entrance fee to Mt. Kumkang at $10 for a day trip, $25 for a two-day trip and $50 for a three-day trip. On May 1, 2005, these fees were raised to $15, $35, and $70. On July 1, 2006, these fees were raised again to $30, $48, and $80. This is just one way.

North Korea may also ask South Korea to lend it a large sum of money with an empty promise of paying it back. This explains in part why it is so important for North Korea to have leaders of the South Korean government who are friendly to North Korea.

These desperate acts are likely to be very short of paying for the majority of the annual trade deficit. If sanctions continue to be effective, the likelihood of North Korea returning to the negotiation table increases. Economics is rarely boring, especially when it deals with real problems.


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