The one of the greatest ethical challenges facing U.S.-Asia relations focuses on the continued struggle to strike a balance between regional peace and security, individual human rights, and state sovereignty. All are important, but difficult to reconcile the inherent tensions among them. This struggle is highlighted in the history of the Asia, and through the current relationship between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). The relationship between the United States and North Korea has been tense since the division of the two Koreas. Tensions have since risen, especially with North Korea’s most recent vocalization of its determination to research and develop nuclear weapons. The United States as well as the rest of the international community took notice of North Korea’s nuclear aspirations and decided to take action and implement a series of resolutions and economic sanctions.
One of the United States’ its key instruments in implementing its foreign policy strategy is the use of economic sanctions on an offending government. While sanctions can be effective in deterring certain behaviors, sometimes economic sanctions do not have the intended effect, or instead produce an additional effect that was originally unintended. Economic sanctions can negatively affect the welfare of the citizens of the sanctioned country. The negative effects of the economic sanctions also have the ability to adversely affect the relations between countries. Most recently, the world has seen this occur as the tensions rise and rhetoric sharpen between North Korea, the United States, and its allies.
The ethical challenge here lies in how the United States chooses to act with sanctions, and how sanctions on the North Korean government affects the interests of the North Korean citizens as well as the interests in regional peace and security. With the North Korea’s “military first” approach to governance, the human rights and welfare of its people have been significantly reduced. The international community has reacted to North Korea’s weapons, especially nuclear, proliferation with sanctions and harsh bans. The ethical challenge the international community faces is whether the international community can allow for these increasingly tighter economic sanctions that also impede on the human rights of the DPRK citizens. The international community should reexamine the human rights and international security interests affecting the entire region. We have seen in Iran that the effects of harsh economic sanctions have disproportionately affected the Iranian citizenry. The essence of the struggle comes to how far should the United States take the economic sanctions?
North Korea ad Economic Sanctions
Once North Korea adopted a communist governmental system, Kim Il-Sung, promoted to the North Korean people, the “idea of Juche,” or the ides of self-reliance, the lynchpin of its social, economic, and political philosophy. As Kim Jong-Il began his rise to power and North Korea’s economy struggled to grow within this isolationist paradigm. Although China remained as Pyongyang's main and strongest ally, the two communist countries no longer bore much resemblance to each other. As China experienced an economic boom, North Korea struggled through a deep depression that led to a famine in the 1990s, estimated to have killed over a million North Korean citizens. Furthermore, North Korea’s economy and welfare of its citizens now depends on international food aid to feed its population.
Addition to the economic hardships, North Korea also continued to develop its nuclear program in direct conflict with agreements from the Six-Party Talks (六者會談) in 2003 and 2007. In response to North Korea’s admission of its nuclear research and plans on nuclear proliferation, the United States and its allies threatened with a round of economic sanctions. On February 13, 2007, North Korea signed an agreement with the United States, South Korea, Russia, China, and Japan, where North Korea agreed to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor in exchange for economic and energy assistance. However in 2009, it was discovered that North Korea continued its nuclear test program.
Since the regime change in North Korea in 2011, tensions between North Korea and the United States have continued to increase due to North Korea’s recent rocket launches and nuclear weapons testing performed in defiance of international law. As a result, the United States and other international players have tightened their economic sanctions on North Korea. Most recently, earlier this year, the United Nations Security Council agreed to implement another round of economics sanctions. The new sanctions called for more restrictions on North Korea’s ability to finance and acquire necessary inputs for nuclear weapons development.
In its own efforts, the United States has supported the number of United Nations resolutions, as well as implement and enforce its own economic sanctions on the DPRK. Initially, the United States’ used its authority in the Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA) and restricted certain types of transactions and trade with the DPRK. In the summer of 2008, President Bush signed Executive Order 13466, imposing certain restrictions on North Korea. With Executive Order 13466, TWEA no longer applied to the DPRK. Other countries, collectively and individually, have also imposed economic sanctions on the DPRK rendering certain parts of the DPRK’s economic either not exist, or run inefficiently. The purpose for these economic sanctions is to provide North Korea a disincentive to continued nuclear proliferation. Most recently, in early April, the eight leading powers, including the United States, warned North Korea that more economic sanctions will be implemented should they test launch another missile.
Currently, the United States has the support to continue with implementing further economic restrictions on North Korea. However, as economic sanctions become increasingly harsh, experts wonder whether more economic sanctions will elicit the desired behavior from North Korea’s government. From what can be seen, there is little or no support for searching and implementing a different type of strategy to ensure North Korea's cooperation and international peace.
Impacts of Sanctions
The radicalization in North Korea’s views against the United States and its allies can be attributed to the tightening of the United States led economic sanctions. The impact of economics sanctions on North Korea behavior continues to wane as the regime refuses to negotiate and comply with the international community’s requests to stop their nuclear weapons program. This staunch refusal is in stark contrast to the agreement signed in 2007. Instead, North Korea has decided to continue their nuclear development program, and have intensified their rhetoric against the United States and its allies. While it is not just the United States imposing and supporting economic restrictions, much of the North Korea’s criticism and hatred is focused on the United States, the imperialist country. The relationship between the United States and North Korea has never been amicable, but North Korea’s rhetoric towards the United States has becoming increasingly radical. As the economic sanctions become increasingly restrictive, we have seen North Korea’s rhetoric become increasingly defiant and increasingly anti-United States and her allies. Shortly after the most recent economic sanctions, North Korea responded with rhetoric that bordered on threats. North Korea continues to implicate the “American imperialists” in their role in North Korea’... and for their role during the Korean War.
Generally, economic sanctions can also be attributed to a country’s stagnating economy. Economic sanctions restrict the offending country’s ability to trade. Laws of economics dictate that when a country is not allowed to freely trade, their economy will suffer and potentially lead to the country’s economy to collapse. Examples of countries that suffered these unintended effects of economic sanctions include Iran and Iraq. Both countries show how economic sanctions disproportionately affect the people of the country instead of the government. With the very strict economic sanctions imposed on Iraq and Iran, both countries suffered economic stagnation as well. In Iraq’s case, the economic sanctions imposed in the 1990’s directly contributed to the state’s economic downturn and continued stagnation. With the economic collapse, Iraq then experienced an economy unable to support its citizens, which then resulted in a devastating drop in the people’s welfare. Iran suffers from a similar economic deterioration. In both countries, the brunt of the economic ruin is felt by the citizens of the country.
Solely deriving the potential impact of tighter economic sanctions on Iraq and Iran, the impacts the sanctions can have on the people of a country should factor more heavily on a country’s decision to impose higher restrictions. With the continued tightening of economic restrictions on North Korea, experts and members of the international community are beginning to wonder if the effect of the tighter sanctions will force North Korea into another depression. The ethical questions lie in whether the United States and its allies can allow for the potential that North Korea and its people will suffer through another economic depression. Continued tightening of economic sanctions also results in an extremely isolated North Korea. In isolating North Korea, one of the unintended results is that the people of North Korea need humanitarian assistance from charities and various non-governmental organizations. From the human rights perspective, financial support is possible could be dangerous without the support of China and South Korea.
In addition to the negative impacts of economic sanctions on the country’s economy, as economic sanctions are repeatedly imposed on a country, another question that comes to mind is how the restrictions affect a nation’s sovereignty. Sovereignty related interests need to be countered against the regional and international interests of peace, security, and equality. In the case of North Korea, the international community generally agrees that North Korea as a nuclear power is an international security issue that does not outweigh the country’s sovereign rights. The consensus is based on North Korea’s previous desires to unify the two Koreas under a communist regime, as well as the continued military threats and attacks they have conducted against South Korea. The main reason for the nearly universal support of the sanctions is to deter unwelcomed behavior from the North Korean regime, specifically in its continued nuclear research and proliferation. An examination of the two opposing interests is critical because while North Korea’s government is unpopular and harshly criticized for its iron-grip on the people’s rights and freedoms, it is critical to remember that North Korea is still a sovereign nation. While this statement may elicit a visceral reaction from most, this is the reality.
As we have seen most recently, the international community, including the United States, depends on the frequent use of economic sanctions. The use of economic sanctions with relation to North Korea should be reconsidered, especially with North Korea’s refusal to cooperate with the United States, its allies, and the rest of the international community. Especially when looking back to the impacts that economic sanctions have had on other economically strained countries, like Iraq and Iran, not just from an ethical perspective, but also from an effectiveness perspective the United States, should begin to look at what other alternative measures can be used in order to elicit cooperation and a more stable region.
With the continued threats and challenges continue to bounce between the United States and North Korea, new alternative measures or strategies on how to deal with North Korea is essential to the security and prosperity to the region. Additionally, the United States, its allies, as well as the rest of the international community must now come together and begin determining how to balance North Korea’s sovereignty and its own rights against the global interest in ensuring that the region is secure.
On the Korean peninsula, it is essential to look for peaceful strategies that allow for both Koreas to begin to re-open communications and begin the healing process between the two Koreas. Re-opening the dialogue with North Korea may be more effective than economic sanctions. North Korea’s refusal stand down may indicate that dialogue is going to be a better alternative. In the end, this will also have positive impacts on United State-Asia relations. Currently, North Korea is limited in its allies, a list that includes China, a country who would help North Korea whenever possible with the hopes that North Korea can politically and economically self-govern in a less isolationist manner.
Another alternative the United States and allies could possibly consider using would be the formal recognition of North Korea’s and its government’s legitimacy. In reality, while the notion of welcoming North Korea is an unpopular and unwelcomed option from the perspective of the majority within the international community, it is an alternative that can no longer be completely disregarded. As we have seen, North Korea’s rhetoric against the United States and its allies has become increasingly radicalized. If the United States and the rest of the international community reposition themselves as a potential ally and friend to North Korea, this may help to quell some of the tensions that are felt throughout the region.
In order to begin to evaluate other effective alternatives, the United States should strive to better understand the history and politics of North Korea. If the purpose underlying the actions of the United States towards North Korea is international peace, and the prevention of nuclear proliferation, then it is now time for the United States to consider alternatives to economic sanctions. Finally, the United States’ and its allies’ biggest challenge is the understanding and respecting the sovereignty of North Korea and what they want for their country, while still ensuring regional security. This difficult task is critical because of its implications it has on other relationships in the region, including China–North Korea relations and Japan–China relations. Regardless, the United States and its allies will need to reevaluate whether the continued enforcement of economic sanctions is the best approach, especially when it is the people of the sanctioned country who suffer the most.
[Oriene H Shin]
[S.J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah]
[Nationality: South Korea]