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North Korea and the Failure of Sanctions

Sanctions will fail to change North Korean behavior on these issues, and the frustrating thing is that we already know this.
Kim Jong-un

Sanctions have thus far completely failed to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, so naturally the Trump administration’s answer is to impose more sanctions:

The Trump administration plans to announce on Friday what is being billed as the largest package of sanctions yet against North Korea to increase pressure on Pyongyang for its nuclear and ballistic missile tests, a senior administration official said.

These are the sanctions that Pence boasted about ahead of the Olympics, and they are guaranteed to fail like all of the others before them have failed. North Korea will not concede what the Trump administration demands, and they consider their weapons programs to be important enough to them that they will put up with an extraordinary amount of economic punishment without budging. Simply put, there is no amount of economic and diplomatic pressure that the U.S. could realistically bring to bear on North Korea to make it do the things that the administration wants it to do. Abandoning engagement and applying pressure are how the U.S. and North Korea got to this point, and continuing to apply more pressure without much of a chance of relief is an obvious dead end. The only thing this will achieve is ratcheting up tensions to pave the way for war.

The U.S. frequently relies on imposing sanctions on other states, but in most cases they fail to achieve Washington’s stated goals. Sanctions are among the least effective tools that the U.S. possesses for advancing its interests, but they are appealing to our political leaders because they are relatively low-risk and low-cost for us while inflicting some pain on an adversary. One reason that sanctions usually don’t work is that the U.S. ostensibly imposes them to change behavior, but really just wants to punish the other state for doing something that it considers undesirable. Sanctions can always punish, but they normally don’t change the targeted state’s behavior in the way that Washington wants.

Another reason that sanctions fail most of the time is that the U.S. applies them in response to behavior that the other state considers both very important and legitimate, and they think that yielding to U.S. demands would have negative consequences for their security and/or national pride. The more bound up with national security and/or national pride an issue is, the less likely it is that the targeted state will ever give in to U.S. demands. There are few issues that are more tied up with these things at this point than North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. Sanctions will fail to change North Korean behavior on these issues, and the frustrating thing is that we already know this.

When the U.S. is determined not to offer the other side incentives, refuses to enter into meaningful talks without ridiculous preconditions, and offers only threats and punishments to force the other side’s capitulation, it clearly has no interest in a diplomatic solution because it has rejected doing the things that successful diplomacy requires. The latest round of sanctions on North Korea confirms that the Trump administration’s policy has failed and it will keep failing so long as they pursue an unrealistic goal with ineffective measures.