No one likes sanctions. They restrict trade, violate human rights, complicate humanitarian relief, and often do not work. Yet sanctions are used with increasing frequency in international relations to change behavior, constrain actors, and send normative signals. While they are undoubtedly overused as a policy tool, they are paradoxically underutilized as an instrument for strategic bargaining and negotiation.
The United Nations sanctions currently being applied to North Korea are the most extensive set of restrictive measures applied by the organization since the comprehensive sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s. Other U.N. sanctions regimes are much more targeted, sanctioning only individuals, imposing arms embargoes, and restricting one or two sectors of the economy.
The DPRK sanctions regime, by contrast, includes not only individual sanctions and arms embargoes, but sweeping restrictions on the country’s major exports and imports. While there are a few areas that are not sanctioned, three of the U.N. sanctions ― on finance, petroleum imports, and shipping ― are non-discriminating measures that have direct or indirect effects on the entire population of the country.
This has led to understandable calls for a lifting of sanctions, particularly given the onset of a global pandemic. Although the government of the DPRK denied the presence of COVID-19 in the country for much of this year, we know there are cases and that the health system is weak and vulnerable. We also know that the regime has taken drastic measures to prevent the virus from entering the country, initially by closing its borders with China. Because the sanctions have effectively cut the DPRK off from formal banking channels, the U.N. has been exploring ways to get funds to U.N. humanitarian agencies operating within the country.
The sanctions are there for a reason, however. North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs pose a threat to the region and to the world. The Trump administration policy of applying maximum pressure on the regime to force it to relinquish its arsenal has, however, reached its limit.
Both China and Russia have signaled their opposition to the approach by refusing to implement some of the mandatory restrictions applied by the U.N. Yet even the Security Council resolution they tabled last December proposing some sanctions relief did not challenge the need for the continued application of sanctions to curb DPRK’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Rather than facile calls for the lifting of sanctions, we need to utilize the existing sanctions more strategically to advance denuclearization goals through a carefully calibrated bargaining framework, while simultaneously developing ways to minimize their humanitarian impact. Since there are so many sanctions in place, there is a large menu of possibilities for sanctions relief that could be considered. COVID-19 relief could serve as an initial confidence-building measure to break the current deadlock in negotiations on denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.
Sanctions suspensions and the promise of sanctions exemptions have broken diplomatic deadlocks in the past: In Libya and the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and more recently in Iran and Afghanistan. Sanctions need not be an impediment, but can be a potential tool for conflict resolution. Calibrated sanctions relief can be utilized for tangible denuclearization measures.
Sanctions relief possibilities exist along a continuum from the simple relaxation of the implementation of measures at one end to the formal lifting of sanctions at the other. Given the scope of the UN sanctions currently being applied to the DPRK, there is considerable room for sanctions relief short of the outright lifting of the measures. At the outset, there could be a voluntary relaxation of implementation of existing measures, backing off from the rhetoric of “maximum pressure.”
This would have to come unilaterally from the U.S., perhaps in exchange for the reaffirmation of DPRK’s unilateral suspension of testing. Later, exemptions could be added to existing standard humanitarian exemptions measures employed in all U.N. sanctions regimes. There could be blanket exemptions for COVID-19 supplies and vaccines or the creation of a safe banking channel for humanitarian goods. Unilateral gestures on both sides would be needed to create a conducive environment for negotiations.
The launch of formal negotiations could be facilitated by other forms of sanctions relief, such as the adjustment upward of existing caps on the import and export of goods. If there were reciprocal, verifiable denuclearization measures taken by North Korea, some sanctions could be suspended for a limited period of time. Selective delistings of individuals and firms not linked closely to the DPRK’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs could be undertaken, and some sectoral measures could be formally lifted.
There is a rich menu of sanctions relief possibilities that could be employed to facilitate denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. If combined with measures to limit their humanitarian impacts, the existing U.N. targeted sanctions could be utilized far more strategically.
Thomas Biersteker is Gasteyger professor of international security at the Graduate Institute, Geneva. He previously taught at Yale University, the University of Southern California, and Brown University. He received his Ph.D. and M.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his B.A. from the University of Chicago. His article was published in cooperation with the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (APLN).
This article was first published in The Korea Times on 7 October 2020 and is part of dedicated, regular column with analysis by APLN members on global issues. You can access the original post here.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.