Unrealistic North Korean Sanctions

Sanctions are a favorite weapon of U.S. foreign policy, but often these punishments amount to expressions of indignation rather than instruments to achieve realistic change in a country’s behavior, observes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The new United Nations Security Council resolution on North Korea was mainly a U.S.-promoted show, even though it passed unanimously. The principal story of the resolution concerned how severe a set of sanctions the United States could get enacted, and how much it needed to water down the resolution to get support from other members of the council and especially to avoid vetoes from China and Russia.

Secretary-General António Guterres (left) addresses the Security Council ministerial-level meeting on North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs. At right is U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Behind Tillerson is U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

Press coverage of the council’s action and the diplomacy surrounding it was all about the extent of the sanctions, what they did and did not cover, and how they went beyond previously enacted sanctions. There was almost no mention in the coverage of what the sanctions were intended to accomplish.

This imbalance of attention mirrors the habitual American approach to sanctions, in which almost all discussion and debate is focused on finding new ways to inflict punishment on whatever country is the target of the sanctions, with far less attention to exactly what the government of that country would have to do to avoid or remove the sanctions, and even less attention to whether it is realistic to expect such a change in the targeted country’s policies.

Too often the subject is treated as if the purpose of sanctions is to express our displeasure with a foreign regime — which, in terms of domestic politics, often really is the purpose.

The Trump administration’s policy on North Korea has so far been firmly in this unfortunate tradition of giving much attention to threats and punishment but far less to defining carefully exactly what we expect from the North Koreans. Trump’s much-noticed threat to…

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