The United Nations Security Council decided to impose more sanctions on North Korea on 2 March 2016. This time, it took around two months for the UN to agree on ‘tougher sanctions’ on North Korea after Pyongyang conducted its fourth nuclear test on 6 January. While the international community was deliberating the nature of the sanctions, North Korea conducted a satellite launch that was alleged to be long-range missile, and fired short several short-range missiles. Even after the sanctions, North Korea does not look ready to change its behaviour. In fact, there are reports that North Korea may mount a nuclear attack without warning and that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has ordered more nuclear tests in the near future.
The North Korean nuclear conundrum has become South Korea and the US' Achilles Heel. The leaders of both the countries have no clue how to deal with the situation except their blindfolded belief that a tit for tat action is the right choice. Every incident of provocative behaviour is seen as a product of North Korean desperation, and more sanctions are considered the right choice in being able to force the North Korean regime to either change its behaviour or for it to collapse.
It seems that both South Korea and the US are still not ready to review their North Korea policy. Even after the recent episode, they were adamant to impose more sanctions and pressure on North Korea. When the UNSC took longer to deliberate the issue because of certain Chinese and Russian reservations, both Seoul and Washington went ahead with their bilateral sanctions. On 18 February, US President Barack Obama signed new sanctions on North Korea into law for its nuclear and missile tests and also because of suspected cyber attack incidents. Similarly, South Korea declared the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) in February, and on March 8, blacklisted dozens of North Korea entities and people for the first time, along with banning ships that have visited North Korean ports.
In addition to sanctions, South Korea and the US have been more direct in criticising China for its failure to contain North Korean provocative behaviour, indicating the frustration in Seoul and Washington. However, in China’s perspective, South Korea and the US obdurate stands is also to be blamed for North Korea’s behaviour. Furthermore, it may be said that these antics are not because of China but rather in spite of it. In fact, both the US and South Korea accepted that China cooperated with the international community in putting sanctions on North Korea in an unprecedented manner after the third North Korean nuclear test in February 2013. China has nothing to gain from aggressive North Korean nuclear and missile programmes.
North Korean provocation, on the other hand, would only help the US make its presence in the region more elaborate and stronger. For example, South Korea’s desire to join the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system and the increasingly significant annual joint military exercise between the US and South Korea are against the national interests of China. Open criticism of China after the North Korean nuclear test was therefore premature and could have been avoided. China may think that it has not been appreciated for what it has done, and instead been blamed for not doing enough. Such an approach runs the risk of pushing China closer to North Korea, and the delay in the passing of the UN resolution on the North Korean test could be attributed to China’s reluctance to cooperate. In the case of Chinese and Russian reluctance to implement sanctions on North Korea, there may be doubt about the success and effectiveness of the policy.
It is time to re-think the efficacy of sanctions: despite increasing the quantum of sanctions with every instance of provocation, why has the international community not been able to achieve satisfactory results? The answer to this question is that sanctions hurt a country if and to the extent it is connected and interdependent with other countries. North Korea has less than US$8 billion external trade and around of half of it is with China. Since the North Korean economy has negligible connections with the outside world, putting more sanctions may not be as effective as they are considered in other cases. Even if sanctions have some small impact on North Korea, it would be felt more by the common people and not by the ruling elite.
Thus, a regime of more strict sanctions on North Korea, which has been sought by the US and South Korea, does not have potential to change North Korea's behaviour. Rather, it may lead to a more hostile North Korea and any miscalculation or accident would lead to disastrous consequences for the Korean peninsula.