Sanctions hurt everybody. That’s the problem with imposing them on a reckless and brutal regime. Instead of pressuring the few in charge, you punish the people as a whole. Sometimes that’s necessary, but it’s never ideal.
In the case of North Korea, however, economic sanctions chiefly hurt the rulers. Virtually all proceeds from trade coming into the country are seized by Kim Jong-un’s kleptocracy and distributed to the military, the leadership, and the bureaucrats who run the police state. And so the Trump administration was wholly in the right when on September 21 it unilaterally imposed the severest possible economic sanctions. If maintained rigorously, these could weaken the Kim regime and hasten its demise.
The administration says that’s not the goal. We assume it is.
We wonder, in fact, if sanctions is even the right word for the administration’s executive order. The multilateral, U.N.-brokered sanctions of the past have generally targeted specific industries—oil, textiles—or tried to stop the regime from advancing its nuclear program. Those are good and necessary measures, and they have had the effect of limiting North Korea’s capacity to make war and slowing its development of missile technology. But multilateral sanctions are designed to pressure a targeted government into altering its behavior. Kim Jong-un will not be pressured to do anything; negotiation with his government is hopeless. Traditional multilateral sanctions have intrinsic weaknesses, too. In the case of North Korea we’ve had to depend on China upholding its obligations, which, of course, it hasn’t done; and U.N. sanctions haven’t stopped Venezuela and Iran from supplying North Korea with oil, refined petroleum, and perhaps even nuclear materials.