Do Sanctions Really Work?


The UN Security Council recently passed sanctions against North Korea in condemnation of the country’s nuclear testing. These approved sanctions were substantially diluted from the original U.S. proposition last week, which many feared China would veto or abstain from voting on. The initial proposal was described by U.S. President Donald Trump on Twitter as “the single largest economic sanctions package ever on North Korea.” It included an asset freeze on Kim Jong-un, a complete ban on oil exports to North Korea, and a call for warships of all UN member states to inspect any ships they suspect of carrying smuggled goods to or from the country, by force if necessary.

North Korea responded to the possibility of new sanctions by threatening the U.S. with “the greatest pain and suffering it has ever gone through.”

This did little to deter Security Council members, however. On Monday, September 11, they unanimously adopted the revised sanctions. These include a cap on oil imports and a ban on North Korean textile exports, as well as an attempt to stop additional overseas contracts to North Korean workers.

The full ban on oil sales, which could have severely impacted the North Korean administration, was removed from the proposal in order to win Chinese approval. China sells approximately 520,000 tons of crude oil to North Korea annually and was unlikely to support sanctions targeting these sales.

Beyond purely economic incentives, the Chinese government is weary of promoting instability in the region, as the fall of North Korea would mean South Korean and U.S. troops at its borders. China also fears an influx of refugees if North Korea begins to crumble.

Russia also expressed its opposition to a possible oil embargo.

While the U.S.-led sanctions are less powerful than they could have been, securing the approval of China and Russia may make them more effective. As China is one of the only countries capable of putting political and economic pressure on the Pyongyang administration, officials say even an abstention from China would have been viewed by North Korea as unwillingness to uphold the sanctions.

Kim Hyun-wook, a Professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul, also told the Guardian, “It is only possible to criticise and rebuke China and Russia for not enforcing the sanctions if they vote for it at the UN Security Council.”

The unanimous adoption of the sanctions does carry potentially dangerous consequences, especially for the U.S. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi foreshadowed the move, telling China’s state broadcaster earlier this week that “after the resolution is passed, the situation on the peninsula will enter a very critical phase. We urge all parties to judge and act with responsibility in order to prevent tensions from escalating.”

North Korean officials speaking to CNN the day after the sanctions were adopted said that the U.S. could face a strong response from Pyongyang.

Though the U.S.-led sanctions garnered unanimous approval from the UN Security Council, their watered-down state begs the question, are sanctions an effective instrument for international diplomacy?

The UN Security Council currently maintains 13 sets of sanctions, including those against Sudan, Lebanon, and North Korea dating back to 2006. While sanctions are certainly a non-violent means of condemning a state’s actions, they may not be effective where participating governments put their own interests ahead of those of the international community.

Libya is often cited as an example of successfully applied sanctions. These led to the former Qaddafi government ending its weapons of mass destruction program and the normalization of relations with the United States. Considering recent history, the sanctions clearly did not bring about any profound administrative shift, but did make Libya more receptive to international will at the time.

George A. Lopez, a founding member of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, said the involvement of powerful global players like the U.S. was crucial to the success of the sanctions against Libya.

He is also quoted by the Council on Foreign Relations as saying, “Sanctions which are meant to focus on engaged bargaining with the target and the supporters of the target seem to be more successful than sanctions that are meant to isolate and punish.”

With this in mind, it is unclear whether the recent sanctions against North Korea will succeed in halting the country’s nuclear weapons development, especially given the competing interests within the Security Council.

If past sanctions have succeeded because they were meant to encourage the receiving states’ participation in international affairs, the measures against North Korea have obviously been put in place with the opposite goal in mind. However, if isolating the target country has failed to work in the past, the latest Security Council sanctions may have little impact.

While sanctions are a useful and peaceful diplomatic tool, they must be implemented with a clear end goal in mind. If the U.S. wants improved relations with North Korea, they can hardly be expected through spearheading a campaign to damage it economically. If the end goal is the cessation of Pyongyang’s nuclear testing, the Security Council may have angered the North Korean administration more than anything.

Though North Korea’s recent nuclear tests do need to be condemned on the international stage, this could be linked with economic reprisals from key North Korean allies, like China. In this way, North Korea has greater incentive to comply with the international community – and perhaps eventually be an active participant in it, with all the regulations that imply, though that is a distant possibility – without seeking revenge for what it considers an attack by its enemies.

Richard Nephew, a contributor to the U.S.-led North Korean analysis site 38 North, also wrote that the Security Council failed to incorporate its recent sanctions in a wider strategy to improve relations with North Korea. Of course, this is in part because certain parties do not want normalized relations with Pyongyang, while others like China already enjoy healthy economic and diplomatic links.

Nephew said in a statement on Twitter that the Security Council must revise the way it condemns state actions to avoid “using sanctions for sanctions’ sake.”

While North Korea has few political allies, this does not mean the country is isolated economically. The Guardian reported UN estimates that North Korea illegally exported coal and other commodities totally over $270 million to China and other countries in the past year. Kim Jong-un also has access to between $3-5 billion under false names in Swiss bank accounts, used to purchase luxury goods and give bonuses to senior officials.

As North Korea has quietly defied international sanctions in the past, it is unlikely that this round of sanctions should be any different. However, the support of China and Russia may make a difference in actually upholding the new restrictions on Pyongyang, even if they are more limited than initially proposed. Though the September 11 unanimous vote may not have been a show of strength from the Security Council, it was at least an important display of unity.

And in the case of North Korea, strength is a double-edged sword. Kim Jong-un, like all previous leaders in the dictatorship’s past, does not operate according to traditional political codes. Since the sanctions were adopted, he has openly threatened Japan with a nuclear attack, and said the U.S. should be reduced to “ashes and darkness.”

The use of sanctions has had mixed success in the past. In this case, where international sanctions have prompted promises of revenge rather than compliance, it is difficult to tell where the fiery rhetoric ends and real diplomatic solutions may begin.

Erika Loggin

Erika is completing her Bachelor of Arts at Simon Fraser University with a degree in International Studies and History. She is passionate about human rights, refugees and forced displacement, and global politics. Erika is contributing to the Organization for World Peace as a correspondent in Canada.
Erika Loggin

About Erika Loggin

Erika is completing her Bachelor of Arts at Simon Fraser University with a degree in International Studies and History. She is passionate about human rights, refugees and forced displacement, and global politics. Erika is contributing to the Organization for World Peace as a correspondent in Canada.