North Korea versus the World: Time to use the carrot and not the stick?

by Oriene Shin

The world has been on edge with the increasingly menacing rhetoric and threatening actions of North Korea. As a result, the international community has imposed tighter economic sanctions. Moreover, North Korea is not helping to placate the concerns of the international community by severing communications with South Korea. With the suspension of certain programs between the two Koreas and the April 2nd threat to restart the nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, the world is now grappling with the question of what to do with North Korea.

International leaders’ recent reactions toward North Korea’s staunch refusal to stop developing nuclear weapons have been to apply to stricter economic sanctions. Earlier this year, the United Nations’ Resolution 2087 articulated tighter restrictions on economic trade with North Korea. However, these new sanctions failed to elicit the intended effect of stopping North Korea’s weapon development. Instead, North Korea’s reaction has been to be more aggressive and refuse to comport to the expectations of the international community. North Korea’s actions raise an important question: when international sanctions do not have the intended effect, economic sanctions or otherwise, what should or what can the international community do next?

Because of the nature of international law, as articulated in resolutions and covenants, enforcement of international law is notoriously difficult and nearly impossible. With this noted difficulty, can more be done with respect to North Korea? Should we continue to hope that economic sanctions will have the intended effect? Or is it now time to look for alternatives?    

Supporters of stricter economic sanctions use Iran as an example to show that economic sanctions work in stagnating a state’s weapons program. The U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran were undoubtedly severe and have had an impact in the state’s ability to become a nuclear power. However, as with the almost any decision, there have been consequences – in Iran’s case, the consequences fell on the citizens in the form of a stagnating economy and poverty. Some in the international community wonder whether the economic sanctions placed undue burdens on the citizens of Iran, and not enough pressure on the state. A blog posting by Elliot Abrams argues the sanctions on Iran do not work. Abrams argues the sanctions did not have the intended effect the U.S. government expected had over the past couple of years.

Another criticism of tighter sanctions has been that they have no effect in deterring the behavior of the offending country. In his article “The Case against Increased North Korean Sanctions,” Ted Galen Carpenter argues the economic sanctions placed on North Korea are futile, and render no real implications for the state. Carpenter suggests that North Korea “wonder[s] whether the United States and its allies would really continue trying to isolate an emerging weapons power.” Carpenter continues in his article that the time may have come for the United States and its allies to begin to consider the possibility of forging meaningful and positive relations with North Korea. However, while a possibility, the U.S. has made clear forging these new positive relations are not probable.

Secretary Kerry’s remarks on April 2 make clear the United States will not consider fostering positive relations with North Korea so long as they continue developing their nuclear program. Instead, the United States has increased its military drills and visibility of the air and naval forces, all of which indicate this banter between North Korea, and U.S. and allies is far from over.  Secretary Kerry states, “[North Korea] have an option, and that option is to enter into negotiations for denuclearization . . . and begin to focus on the needs of their people.”

But with economic sanctions failing to elicit the expected actions from North Korea, the international community must begin to look for alternatives. Economic sanctions on North Korea may have worked in the past, but today, there is new leadership. This new regime has refused to cooperate.  The tensions between North Korea, and the U.S. and allies have led to both sides to play a dangerous game of chicken. As a result, we have seen an increase in military drills on both sides of the DMZ.

The international community can no longer ignore the very real possibility of North Korea becoming a nuclear power. North Korea’s continued dedication to developing its nuclear program now forces the rest of the world to think about other alternatives. Maybe it is time to acknowledge that the economic sanctions are not applying the appropriate pressure needed to deter North Korea’s actions. It is time to start thinking about other avenues the international community can take to apply the right kind of pressure or to provide the appropriate influence that will result with North Korea as less of a threat.

While the option of recognizing North Korea as a nuclear power has been dismissed, the international community still must search for alternatives to more economic sanctions. Alternatives must exist where it is possible to work with North Korea, positively impact the welfare of the North Korean people, and somehow stop or steer North Korea’s nuclear program down a less menacing path.  What happened to working with countries to achieve a particular goal? With North Korea, we seemed to have broken the stick, so why not look to using a carrot, or a radish? 

Oriene Shin is a 2L student and a member of the Global Justice Think Tank