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Sanctions alone won’t change North Korea’s behaviour, say experts

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS

Economic sanctions against North Korea won’t be enough to stop it from expanding its nuclear strike capability, say international security experts.

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“I think a lot of people have the impression that we should be able to put on sanctions and instantaneously this is going to compel Kim Jong Un to rethink his life,” said Andrea Charron, director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba.

“That’s unreasonable for any tool,” she said.

Sanctions alone aren’t the answer, she added.

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The United Nations has imposed sanction after sanction on North Korea since 2006, limiting states from sending it luxury goods, freezing the assets of government party members, not allowing countries to buy North Korean coal, minerals and textiles, as well as other measures. New sanctions were announced as recently as last week.

READ MORE: UN Security Council steps up sanctions against North Korea

All of this is designed to cut off sources of funding for the regime so they can’t invest in military weapons, said Tina Park, the executive director of the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and an expert in Korean affairs.

But it hasn’t worked, she said. “I am of the opinion that sanctions will not make any meaningful difference when it comes to changing North Korea’s behaviour.”

“We have tried for 10 years and it has failed in terms of stopping or slowing down North Korea’s military capabilities.”

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The regime has come up with “creative” ways to avoid sanctions, she said, such as shipping cargo under a Cambodian flag, marking things “product of Korea” rather than specifying North Korea, and smuggling goods into China, where Chinese agents sell them on North Korea’s behalf.

Changing China’s mind

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China is crucial to North Korea and to any eventual negotiations, said Elliot Tepper, a senior research fellow at Carleton University’s Centre for Security, Intelligence and Defence Studies.

China is North Korea’s main export market and main energy supplier, he said. As such, it might be able to pressure North Korea into negotiating, he said. He thinks much of the dialogue right now is “political theatre” aimed at convincing China that North Korea is a security threat and to act decisively against the regime.

READ MORE: Where North Korea, the Hermit Kingdom, gets money for nuclear weapons

Charron sees signs of this happening. For example, China supported the last round of sanctions against North Korea.

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“I think China is starting to realize what a rogue element North Korea is. China cannot bring Kim Jong Un to heel anymore. And you’re starting to see evidence, for example, of China shutting down North Korean bank accounts. That’s new.”

She sees a role for sanctions, as a way to show Kim that the whole international community is against him, limit his ability to finance his nuclear program and hopefully convince him to negotiate.

WATCH: U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres comments on UN nuclear ban treaty

Historically speaking, among other countries, UN sanctions have helped, she said.

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“What we can see from the history of the UN Security Council putting in place sanctions for non-proliferation reasons, we have yet to have an incident of a bomb being dropped on somebody,” she said.

“Sanctions have helped to sometimes retard the nuclear proliferation program, have opened up the space to get the parties to the table.”

She pointed to the cases of Iran and South Africa. In these cases, she thinks that sanctions helped persuade the countries to negotiate their nuclear programs and in South Africa’s case, give up its bombs.

The Kim factor

The big question, thinks Charron, is Kim Jong Un. “I think he’s put his whole reputation and narrative on ‘I am going to do what no other leader has done and I’m going to stop at nothing to do it.’” That includes being willing to overwork and starve his people to get his nukes, she said.

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Previous North Korean leaders, upon facing a starving population, used to occasionally slow things down and negotiate in order to get international aid, she said.

“Kim Jong Un is different in that he seems hell-bent on achieving this nuclear program at the total expense of his people.”

North Korea also holds a distinct advantage, said Tepper. “We should remind ourselves that the reason North Korea feels it can behave in this fashion is that its conventional weaponry aimed at South Korea and at Japan makes them feel invulnerable because any military option, any military attack seems to be impossible.”

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READ MORE: Could Canada be drawn into a Second Korean War? It depends how it starts

Any war in the region would be “catastrophic,” costing many South Korean and Japanese lives, he said.

Charron sees some reason for optimism though. “That’s been the history of the United Nations: at some of its most bleak and hopeless times, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, cooler heads did prevail because there was the United Nations and other good offices were there to provide an outlet, a face-saving solution for the parties to conflict.”

However, getting to the table is tough. “The stars literally have to align.”


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