RICHARD BUTLER. New Sanctions on North Korea: No substitute for direct political engagement

Sep 15, 2017

The new sanctions on DPRK will likely suffer the failure of so many such sanctions orders. DPRK policy and actions have their reasons. Those must be addressed directly, politically. Will the nuclear weapon states do it, or is it too close to their bones?  

At US urging the UN Security Council has adopted a resolution restricting, not ending, oil deliveries to DPRK. The US argued that this will curtail the DPRK nuclear programme. Perhaps appropriately, it’s fake policy. Why?

Long experience with UN sanctions reveals a dismal track record, for these reasons:

  1. They are almost never able to be strictly implemented/enforced. In this case, there is already a flourishing black market oil export industry supplying DPRK, run mainly by criminal groups operating out of Hong Kong, on vessels of a multitude of varying flags of convenience. They will not stop, indeed may see the UNSC resolution as offering an expansion of their market. It’s not credible to think that maritime operations will be mounted to interdict them.
  2. DPRK will go in for import substitution, making oil out of coal, for example, to the extent that they see the need to do so.
  3. They virtually always hurt ordinary people far more than the government. The government can be expected to re-order its priorities in the use of oil and its products, reducing its use elsewhere in their economy, to ensure that they have what they need for their military and weapons programmes. This is the nasty part: the major impact of sanctions is likely to be upon ordinary people, not the targeted programmes. President Putin captured this reality when he stated, last week, that he thought the people of the DPRK “would eat grass”, rather than give up the national weapons programmes.

The decision to target oil, in this instance, rests on a judgment that it plays a central role in the DPRK weapons programmes. If that is wrong, even in a relative or exaggerated way, then this particular sanctions decision assumes a punitive rather than technically sound aspect.

This introduces the inner dilemma of sanctions, which are envisaged in the Charter of the UN as a non-military way of seeking to forge compliance by a state with decisions of the Council taken in the name of “the maintenance of international peace and security.”

While they are indeed non-military in character, they are in fact a weapon and are always seen as such by those to whom they are applied. And, this is the dilemma: is the Council, the international community, reduced to simply telling a recalcitrant state that they are disapproved of and should behave better. Some have rightly characterized such warnings as having the force of threatening to lash a person with a damp Kleenex, or are they always compelled to go far harder?

If hard – that is mainly military action – were to be employed wherever international law and practice is being violated, the number of such enforcement actions underway at any given time would be laughable. So, sanctions have, at least their theoretical point: a kind of international political tough love which should encourage an end to the offending behavior after which normal service is resumed and the recalcitrant re-admitted to the community. And, they avoid collective military action – always hard to organize and mostly resulting in a cure at least as bad as the disease.

As an aside, when thinking about upholding international law and principle, where are the sanctions on Saudi Arabia for its flagrantly illegal and devastating military action in Yemen and, on the UK for selling it the weapons for it, for some 5 billion sterling?

In addition to the gut problem of sanctions almost invariably hurting ordinary people most, they have also tended to strengthen popular support of the national government based on it being seen as being persecuted by foreign devils. That sense is encouraged when sanctions are seen as having a punitive aspect.

A major experience of all of these effects and genuine problems was gained when total sanctions, except for foodstuffs and medicines, was imposed on Iraq, following its invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Those sanctions: lasted for 8 years; did great harm to the bulk of the people; did assist, for a while, in the work of eliminating Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction; strengthened the overall sense in Iraq that it was being treated singularly unfairly, even though there was fairly widespread awareness of the culpability of Saddam and his regime; and as time passed were ever increasingly evaded, including through exports to Iraq from countries allegedly loyal to the sanctions regime.

All of this ended when political support, in the Security Council, for the UN operation in Iraq collapsed. This removed the extreme embarrassment sanctions had become.

Law enforcement needs to be proportionate and effective. It must fit the crime and certainly not match it.

This introduces a particular and disturbing aspect of the current DPRK case. It is being told by states who openly insist that their integrity, independence, freedom, depends upon them having nuclear weapons; but DPRK is not permitted to have such thoughts, for itself.

It is not hard to see how discriminatory and hypocritical this is seen to be by DPRK. And, Trump literally threatening them with destruction, which he did again only a few days ago, confirms their analysis of the situation, including the notion that if one is to survive the US world, one has to have nuclear weapons. Saddam, Milosovich and Qadaffi didn’t and, look what happened to them

It’s not an intelligent response to think that this is all madness. Look at Kim Jong un; he’s obviously off his tree, etc. (and Donald Trump isn’t?).

The critical questions are surely able to be discerned, understood and maybe discussed: especially, why is Kim/DPRK behaving this way. What do they want.?

These are political questions which must be addressed, whether that seems unworthy or not, before they spin or are spun out of control. It’s not clear that this latest sanctions decision will encourage such a development.

It is clear that the resolution of the Security Council is not a substitute for the real, political action urgently required.

As a postscript, there is a related, intriguing question. Why did the other four permanent members of the Council, all nuclear weapon states, especially Russia and China, support the sanctions resolution?

Did they actually think it would help; was it simply to settle down the US; or, was it seen as affirming their overall dominance of nuclear weapons related issues.

We might learn the answer to these major questions when we see how they treat any proposals for serious political discussions with DPRK.


Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations, Executive Chairman of UNSCOM, the UN Special Commission to disarm Iraq.

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