Last Monday, the White House took provocative measures in declaring North Korea an official “sponsor of terrorism.” This designation was met with little concern by news sources, who primarily considered it a symbolic move. Among a variety of consequences, the measure would prevent the United States from providing military equipment to the authoritarian state, but in reality, this transfer of arsenal hasn’t occurred for over 70 years. The real impact of the designation is the implementation of a variety of new sanctions aimed at incapacitating the North Korean economy. The heaviest burden will be carried not by Kim Jong-un’s administration, but by the people of North Korea.
Human Rights Watch routinely reports the appalling nature of living conditions in North Korea. Basic rights, including freedom of speech, religion, and assembly, are blocked by the state. Widespread starvation and forced labour remain rampant. Discrimination and huge discrepancies in wealth provide fertile ground for domestic disputes. The humanitarian crisis occurring in North Korea should be at the forefront of international crisis management conversations, but the United Nations and major international actors continue to focus on the state’s nuclear program. By instituting such extreme export limitations, the United States and other powerful nations are hurting the businesses and workers in these export industries.
In a democratic, uncorrupted government, sanctions have the potential to significantly affect administrative decisions, but in a state controlled by a leader who fails to show remorse for widespread starvation and deplorable living conditions, sanctions have little effect. America has attempted to deter North Korea from nuclear development through sanctions on seven separate occasions and has failed each time. In the past, North Korea has responded by further tightening its borders, making emigration nearly impossible for civilians seeking refuge.
America has a long history of imposing sanctions on North Korea and its citizens. Sanctions enforced in early August were implemented as a tool to coerce Kim Jong-un into nuclear disarmament. The sanctions were in the form of trade barriers, including import and export bans. They were aimed at deterring North Korea from its nuclear program by persuading China, the nation’s largest trade partner, to apply the same restrictions. While in theory this approach seems appropriate, in examining China’s relationship with North Korea, the tactic loses credibility. China has set a strong precedent of failing to apply conditions established by sanctions. Since January, strides have been made to deconstruct this reputation, but China’s legacy as a non-participant in these measures remains.
We must ask whether this designation was made with the intention of deterring North Korea from further nuclear development or whether this is another example of a powerful Western state exerting its dominance over a non-Western state. The sanctions, examined at a distance, seem plausible, but when assessed within its context, prove far less convincing. Before imposing harsh sanctions on an already struggling populace, lawmakers must understand the implications of their actions. As Austin Neudecker, economist and MIT graduate articulated, “It is exceedingly dangerous to beat our chests at a dictator eager to show his people just how ruthless he can be.”
- U.S. Declares North Korea A “Sponsor Of Terrorism” - December 2, 2017