CAVAN HOGUE. Sanctions and virtue.

Sanctions are a form of force but seem to be the only answer Western countries can come up with. There is no evidence that they are effective, probably because it is not the decision-makers who suffer from them. Pressure on China to do more does not take account of Chinese interests. China wants a buffer but not an out of control nuclear state in the DPRK. Kim is not suicidal but seems to understand the restrictions on outsiders better than some of them do. Negotiations seem like the only approach that would give Kim what he wants and lead to a loss of face by the USA.

Sanctions are a form of force or economic warfare. To be effective they must hurt the decision-makers and be credible. A recent study by the Nautilus Institute in the USA shows that the DPRK could maintain its military activities even if China cut off oil supplies. Other sources of energy could be utilised and it is the poor who would suffer. Since everyone agrees that Kim is a brutal dictator who puts military might before the welfare of his people, the elite and the military would be the last ones to suffer. His propaganda machine would no doubt use any suffering to blame the foreign aggressors and maintain support for his regime. Kim must know what would happen if military war broke out and is not going to commit suicide by actually attacking anyone. He probably does believe that the USA has aggressive designs on the DPRK and that the only way to prevent invasion is by acquiring nuclear weapons. There is no doubt an element of rhetoric in his claims but history suggests his views may not be totally unreal.

The constant harping by Western countries on the need for China to solve the problem by stronger sanctions must surely annoy the Chinese who don’t share the American view that they are the good guys. American exceptionalism and manifest destiny underlie much US thinking and public rhetoric even when not explicitly stated. They really do believe they are good guys. Especially in the light of Chinese history, no Chinese leader could be seen to be backing down to foreign pressure and China may well understand the limits of its influence of the DPRK. China does have an interest in a buffer DPRK but not in an out of control nuclear state, so there is a real dilemma for China. I don’t know what the Chinese will come up with but threats and pressure from Trump and his loyal allies are unlikely to be helpful. The threat of trade sanctions by Trump would surely be ineffective and probably counter-productive.

Kim is not likely to be interested in Australian views so we must assume that Mr Turnbull is either very naive – which I doubt –  or is  playing the domestic/loyal ally card. Domestically, the line is that the US will save us from the Korean dragon. Internationally, it is a sign of solidarity with the US to which we are joined at the hip, or as some would suggest, a little further round the anatomy. The collapse of the DPRK  would have very negative effects on both the ROK and China so it is not surprising that they show a less aggressive approach. So the US and its acolytes are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Force would lead to disaster and nothing except negotiations is likely to stop the DPRK  continuing on its current path, which would  mean a loss of face for the USA.  China and  Russia have made their displeasure known by voting for  Security Council sanctions but to no avail.

Cavan Hogue is a former Australian diplomat who served in Seoul on the UN Commission for the Unification and Rehabilitation of Korea  in the 1960s (it did neither) and returned to Korean and Chinese interests in the 1990s as head of the Asia Division in DFAT and as contact point for negotiations with the DPRK after our mission in Pyongyang was closed. He was also Ambassador to Russia amongst other ambassadorial appointments and served as Ambassador and Deputy PR to the UN when we were on the Security Council.

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3 Responses to CAVAN HOGUE. Sanctions and virtue.

  1. Tony Kevin says:

    We have been foolishly supporting US/NATO sanctions against Russia over Crimea reunification referendum since 2014. Russia has surmounted the sanctions through successful policies of import substitution. Its own counter-sanctions against Western food imports crippled our dairy export industry and led directly to the depressed state of dairy farming in Australia today, because these sanctions forced EU dairy farmers to undercut us in our China dairy market which had hitherto been large and secure. Now it is unprofitable and has shrunk under EU competition.

  2. derrida derider says:

    You are right about China’s interests and current views in this. But it does highlight the fact that China has badly mishandled NK. The game China has been playing for decades is posing as the wise and cautious patriarch of the Family, but one with this (convenient) hot blooded young nephew who keeps threatening to whack all the Family’s enemies. “Of course, should Japan rearm we would not do anything rash in response. But I can’t speak for young Kim – he never listens to me anyway, you know …”.

    But young Kim was never going to be happy with that role permanently, which China should have foreseen. He’s undoubtedly quietly whispering to China “If you gang up with the families’ enemies and push me too hard into a corner, don’t think I won’t send a couple of nukes your way before I go under”. After all, if China is for historic reasons very sensitive to attempts at Western bullying, for historic reasons any Korean leader is going to be very sensitive about Chinese bullying.

  3. Paul Frijters says:

    I am with Derrida on this: the Chinese have been exceedingly foolish to help NK achieve nuclear and ballistic missile status. At the end of the day, the Chinese have more to fear of a nuclear NK than the US because Beijing is a lot closer to the NK border than LA, so while the US would have maybe 30 minutes to stop a missile, Beijing might have a minute or two.
    What would be a minor loss of face to the US (let NK further develop its weaponry) is a nightmare to the Chinese. One of their own making it now seems. Cavan doesn’t seem to want to speculate on how NK got its weaponry, which is fair enough, but in so doing I think he misses the major issue.
    And of course it is not in China’s interest now to truly apply sanctions to NK. It is probably not in our interest either. From this point on, we probably want NK to be poor (so that its military resources remain limited), but not desperate. On Chinese life-support would from now on probably suit us just fine, because that makes NK China’s problem.

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