Interview: Sanctions Against North Korea Aren't Working

North Korea expert Andrei Lankov says that sanctions don't work when a leader can ignore the views of his country's people.

North Korea expert Andrei Lankov (R) speaks with RFA executive editor Dan Southerland on July 12.

In a July 12 interview with RFA’s Executive Editor Dan Southerland, Russian historian and North Korea expert Andrei Lankov discusses factors that he believes undermine international trade sanctions against North Korea.

RFA: What has been the impact of the increased international trade sanctions against North Korea?

Lankov: I believe that four indicators show that the sanctions so far have not produced any significant impact. These involve declining grain prices in North Korea; a steadiness in exchange rates; only a minor decrease in the electrical supply in Pyongyang; and zero change in major North Korean construction projects.

RFA: China agreed to the U.N.-sponsored sanctions. But do you see signs that China is doing enough to implement them?

Lankov: It’s unclear whether China is deliberately avoiding the implementation of some sanctions, but the participation of China is absolutely vital. One problem, however, is that relations between the U.S. and China are worsening. The Chinese will see no reason to help sort out what they see as essentially an American problem.

RFA: The U.S. and South Korea have said that they’ll deploy a THAAD missile defense system in South Korea to protect South Korea from a North Korean missile attack. And that caused North Korea to threaten a “physical response.” Can you speculate on what that might be?

Lankov: It’s too early to say what the overall impact will be, but it’s safe to say that this will add to Chinese animosity towards the United States.  In addition, U.S.-China differences over the South China Sea don’t help when it come to getting Chinese assistance on the North Korea issue.  

RFA: I’ve seen reports that Beijing has banned dollar dealings with North Korea, and this has apparently inflated some of the prices of Chinese products in North Korea. At the same time, North Korea’s use of the Russian ruble in trade transactions allows them to carry on some trade without being subjected to monitoring.

Lankov: Well, it is true that some Chinese products have become more expensive.

RFA: When you mention electricity supply holding relatively steady, how can you measure this? Don’t electricity shortages vary from region to region in North Korea? And the North Koreans consider themselves technically at war. They’re big on camouflage, concealment, and deception.

Lankov: Studies at Stanford University have shown that under sanctions, the North Korean leadership can simply reallocate electricity from the countryside to the capital. Of course, they still face electrical shortages, as always. But the regime has to keep the elite citizens of the capital happy.

RFA: And if grain prices have decreased, isn’t this a sign that the sanctions were designed to spare ordinary North Koreans from suffering any more than they do already?

Lankov: The idea of selective sanctions—the idea that sanctions can spare the ordinary people—is a fantasy.

RFA: What are the limits to how far China will go to support sanctions. What are the limits?

Lankov: If sanctions implementation begins to threaten the survival of the Kim Jong Un regime, China will pull back. China needs a relatively stable North Korea. They don’t want a North Korean collapse that might involve dealing with thousands of refugees. And they don’t want a North Korea under South Korean control. They want a buffer zone against the Americans and South Koreans.

RFA: The U.S. and South Korea as well as human rights groups have called on other nations to stop employing North Korean workers, because many of these workers labor under harsh conditions and most of their income goes to the Kim Jong Un regime. Has this been effective in curbing the regime’s income?

Lankov:  I would say that two thirds to three quarters of the workers’ salaries go to the state. But the remaining amount still makes these by far the best jobs that ordinary North Koreans can get. It might make sense to stop North Korea from making money from the income of these workers. But let’s not pretend that we’re helping these suffering workers by doing so. People pay bribes to get these jobs.

RFA: The South Koreans have been urging some African nations to cut their ties with North Korea. Uganda said that it wouldn’t renew contracts for North Koreans who are training their military and police. Is this a significant development?

Lankov: Africa isn’t a major source of income for North Korea. Many more North Korean workers are employed in Russia and China—more than 40,000 altogether. And thousands of North Korean workers are employed in the Middle East, in countries such as Kuwait, the U.A.E., and Qatar. North Korea sells weapons to Middle Eastern countries with no questions asked, and these are countries that don’t worry about the human rights side of all this.

RFA: On July 6, the Obama administration sanctioned Kim Jong Un by name for the first time along with a number of other senior North Korean officials for human rights violations. North Korea has followed up by saying that the United States has in effect declared war on North Korea. And they’ve severed the only communications channel that they have with the U.S. at the United Nations in New York. Please comment on these developments.

Lankov: How many times has North Korea declared war on the U.S. and on South Korea?  It’s never happened. It’s part of their rhetoric ... And a communications channel can be easily opened.

RFA: There’s a long history of sanctions not working in a number of cases, but they did work against South Africa.

Lankov: Sanctions against South Africa worked because it was a democracy. They had to take into account what their own people were thinking. Sanctions don’t work when a leader can ignore the views of the common people, which is the case with North Korea ... Sanctions worked in Iran because while the system is twisted and lacking in many ways, they do have elections and some accountability. They do have to listen to public opinion. Sanctions do not seem to work well against an isolated country.

RFA: What can we expect to happen next?

Lankov: I don’t expect to see any immediate change in North Korea.  The North Koreans are inclined to go on testing their missiles and nuclear warheads. As for sanctions, you may have to wait a few years for some of them to start to bite.