Lankov on DPRK sanctions

Lankov provides a rhetorical argument against the feasibility of sanctions leading to policy changes in the DPRK.  Writing in the Korea Times:

As everybody repeats these days, the “Sunshine Policy” of engagement and unilateral concessions is dead. After the Cheonan sinking, all Seoul talks about is sanctions and pressure ― and this position finds some understanding in Washington.

It is not likely that talks of tougher sanctions will actually produce tougher punishment against the North. In all probability the attempts to put pressure on Pyongyang will be quietly (or not so quietly) sabotaged by China, perhaps with some Russian support.

This will be disappointing news for many Korean and American hardliners, but they should probably not be that upset: in the very unlikely case of a truly vigorous sanctions regimen being implemented, it is not going to succeed in influencing North Korea’s behavior. The peculiarities of the North Korean regime make it essentially immune to sanctions.

How does a sanctions regimen normally work? When a country is subjected to international sanctions, it does not mean that the leaders suffer from malnutrition ― in all probability, their daily intake of caviar and cognac does not go down a lot, and the fuel tanks of their Jaguars are still full.

Contrary to the lofty rhetoric of diplomats, in nearly all cases it is the common population and lower reaches of the elite who feel the brunt of the sanctions.

Depending on the time and place it might mean anything from surviving for years on a starvation diet to a mere inability to buy a new car, but at any rate people do not take the noticeable decline in their living standards lightly.

So, the dissatisfaction begins to build up, and people start feeling bad about the policy which brought the sanctions upon them (and also toward the government which initiated such a policy).

This is bad news for the government. If a country has relatively free and fair elections, chances are that the government will be voted out of power. In less liberal regimes, a revolution is a likely outcome.

And, last but not least, the factions of the ruling elite might seize the opportunity and use the public discontent to stage a coup. At any rate, a government which is too stubborn faces a very real risk of losing its power because of popular discontent.

However, this mechanism is clearly not what is going to work in North Korea. None of the above-mentioned scenarios of regime change can be realistically expected there.

Needless to say, the North Koreans do not vote ― well, they vote with a predictable 100 percent approval rate for the sole candidate, appointed by the government long before elections.

A popular uprising is not likely either. In the late 1990s North Korea suffered a disastrous famine which killed between half a million and a million people. To a large extent it was brought about by the policy of the government which refused to implement reforms out of fear of instability.

But even the famine victims died quietly, with little, if any, resistance. The North Korean population was too terrified and disorganized to stage any efficient resistance movement. The North Koreans did not know much about available alternatives to their regimented existence. Nowadays the situation has changed to some extent, but not that much.

In other words, the North Korean political system does not receive feedback. The economic prosperity and even survival of the population is not high on the regime agenda, and the population itself has neither violent nor peaceful ways to influence the government policy.

It seems that sanctions supporters pin their hopes largely on a coup orchestrated by the dissatisfied elite, so it makes sense to dwell on this scenario a bit longer. Their logic runs like this: Kim Jong-il uses his funds to bribe top officials, providing them with cars, hi-tech gadgets and luxury goods.

If they do not get these giveaways, they will become resentful of Kim Jong-il and his policies and will probably demand changes or even stage a coup ― in order to have a reliable supply of Hennessy.

But will they? This logic would probably work in some Latin American dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s where the change of the dictator would not lead to a collapse of the entire system, so ambitious colonels were always looking for an opportunity to get rid of the aging generals. This is not the case in North Korea.

The North Korean leaders understand that any attempt to rock the boat is dangerous. A sight of disunity at the very top might send a dangerous signal to the hitherto docile and terrified populace, and the collapse of the entire system becomes a probability (East Europe of the early 1990s demonstrated once again how sudden revolutions can be).

The god-like status of the Kim family complicates the situation further. The top leaders might have more realistic ideas about the dictator, but they understand that for the populace the sight of a god being removed from power will come as a huge shock. After that, people might become ungovernable.

But, unlike most other countries, North Korea is a part of a divided nation, and an outbreak of instability there might bring about unification with the South ― the ultimate nightmare of the present day elite. If that happens, the top officials and generals have no chance of keeping their privileges, and they are seriously afraid of being prosecuted for their past misdeeds.

It is not incidental that Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il’s father and founder of the regime, in the early 1990s made sure that all members of his entourage watched the footage of the execution of Ceausescu, a Romanian strongman who was the closest analogue to the Kims, and the violent Romanian revolution.

His message was: if I am removed from power, you will lose everything, including, probably, your lives. The message was not lost, more so since it appears to be correct.

So, the North Korean generals and dignitaries can survive on a reduced amount of Scotch whisky if the most likely alternative seems to be a lifelong survival on prison rations ― or worse. Kim Jong-il is seen by those people as a guarantee of stability, and none of them will challenge his supremacy.

Thus, if by some unlikely miracle China sincerely joins the sanctions regimen and puts serious pressure on North Korea, the immediate result will be neither revolution nor coup, but simply a dramatic increase in the mortality rate ― in other words, a lot of dead farmers.

Perhaps some breaking point exists and can even be reached if sanctions are applied systematically and for a long time, but this breaking point seems to be too many corpses away.

Fortunately for the average North Korean, it is not going to happen. Driven by fear of instability (and decisively unenthusiastic about unification) China does not want to see North Korea cornered, and will not allow any efficient sanctions to be applied.

Read the full story here:
Sanctions against North Korea
Korea Times
Andrei Lankov


2 Responses to “Lankov on DPRK sanctions”

  1. Benoit says:

    The only other alternative to status quo is war, and nobody wants to pay this price.