After Kim Jong Un's latest nuclear provocation, the U.S. has vowed to press for stringent new trade and financial sanctions against North Korea. When it comes to further isolating the Hermit Kingdom, however, there's good news and bad news. The truth is that sanctions haven't and aren't likely to work. The good news is that the bad news isn't so bad: Truly effective sanctions would probably make the problem posed by North Korea worse.
The inefficiency of sanctions should be clear by now. The first set of the international sanctions on North Korea was levied by the United Nations in 2006, after the regime's first nuclear test. They were further strengthened after subsequent tests in 2009 and 2013. The measures, however, have failed to have any impact on the North Korean economy. To the contrary, the clampdown roughly coincided with the beginning of North Korea's economic recovery, which had started few years earlier but became noticeable in 2006-07. Since then the country has enjoyed a resumption of economic growth -- around 1.5 percent annually, if you believe the pessimists, or 4 percent according to optimists.
This shouldn't come as a surprise. North Korea has one of the world's lowest trade-to-GDP ratios. More than three-quarters of its trade is with China, a country which, despite being skeptical of and even hostile to the regime's nuclear ambitions, is unlikely ever to support economic sanctions wholeheartedly. (When it comes to restricting the flow of military-related imports and exports, the Chinese are far more trustworthy.)
Deprive the elite
Some proponents of additional sanctions argue they'll at least deprive the North Korean elite of luxury goods, thus making them restive. Kim, they say, needs to keep his subordinates happy by showering them with gifts and money, lest they defect and replace with another, more generous ruler.
This indeed might have been the case with dictators in 1960s South America or Africa, but not in today's North Korea. Of course, giveaways are appreciated. But the Pyongyang elite have never forgotten that they live in a divided country whose southern half is far, far richer and highly attractive to common citizens. Any outbreak of instability is likely to result not in a change at the top, but in a massive disintegration of the system. The North would almost certainly be absorbed by the more prosperous South Korea, as happened to East Germany 26 years ago.
If that happens, the current elite would have no future and might be even held responsible for committing human rights abuses. Given the choice, they'd surely rather live without a few luxuries. Most of these people know little of Benjamin Franklin (even though they like his portraits on $100 bills). But his famous dictum about hanging together -- "or assuredly we shall all hang separately" -- determines their politics.
A question of results
For the sake of argument, let's assume the Chinese agree to reduce trade with North Korea dramatically, while the U.S. introduces strict financial sanctions, blocking the country from the international finance system. Under those circumstances, the North Korean economy is indeed likely to deteriorate.
However, it's an open question whether even that will produce the political results the outside world wants. In most countries, sanctions work indirectly. They make life more difficult, so people begin to exercise pressure on the government, demanding a change in the policies which drew sanctions in the first place. In a democracy, citizens vote for opposition; in more authoritarian regimes, they start rallies or even rebellions. Neither is possible in North Korea.
In an isolated and carefully controlled state without any civil society, the pressure required to spark an uprising would have to be appallingly strong. In the late 1990s, a massive famine killed some half-million North Koreans, about 2 percent of the population, yet produced no riots or open discontent, let alone a rebellion. North Korean commoners died quietly.
High 'rebellion threshold'
Things are a little different now: People appear to be a bit less afraid of the government, better informed and organized. Nonetheless, the "rebellion threshold" is still very high: No revolution is likely to occur unless a few hundred thousand North Koreans starve to death. That's a prospect even cynical diplomats should think twice before embracing.
Last but not least, one shouldn't forget that a revolution, should it happen, would plunge a nuclear country into the state of anarchy -- the first such case in the world's history. It's quite possible that a collapsing nuclear North Korea would be more dangerous to the world than a stable North Korea, working hard to improve its nuclear arsenal. Fortunately, the last piece of good news is that the Chinese would probably sabotage any new sanctions well before matters reached that point.
Andrei Lankov, a professor of history at Kookmin University in Seoul, is the author of "The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia."