Sanctions against North Korea are a failure

James Paek is a One Young World Ambassador representing the United States. Having South Korean heritage, he has a keen interest in human rights issues in North Korea.

United Nations sanctions against North Korea will not work as a sufficient deterrent to North Korea’s nuclear program development. These sanctions only work to provoke North Korea, harm the country’s citizens, and amount to nothing more than political showoff and flash rather than diplomatic substance. The international community cannot afford to tether itself to the sole solution of sanctions. If it does, it risks the possibility of war in the Korean peninsula. We must seek an alternate path: open up negotiations and talks with North Korea so that we can come to an agreement similar to the deal reached with Iran over its nuclear program.

The United Nations’ sanctions against North Korea began as a response to the country’s near decade of nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, 2012, and 2016. The United States also joined in when President Obama signed the “North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act of 2016.” The world’s sanctions aimed to cripple North Korea by cutting off financial and humanitarian aid among other punishments. Yet, North Korea remains undeterred by these sanctions and continues to develop its nuclear program. Proponents of sanctions believe that if the punishments get bad enough, then North Korea will be forced into negotiation. But there is no evidence that North Korea is willing to go down that path.


The evidence points to a North Korea that would respond to sanctions with force, not capitulation. In January 2016, North Korea announced that it had conducted a hydrogen bomb test. While many doubted this claim, the international community still went ahead with imposing even tougher sanctions on North Korea. The result? North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the East Sea in direct defiance of UN Security Council resolutions. Sanctions aren’t bringing North Korea closer to negotiation; they are bringing North Korea closer to military aggression.

Herbert Hoover once said of sanctions that “they breed incurable hatreds”. The current sanctions have not only failed to curtail the nuclear weapon and human rights abuses of the notorious North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, they are also constraining humanitarian efforts to carry out life-saving activities inside North Korea. The sanctions cut off the provision of nutritional supplements to malnourished children, the treatment of infectious diseases, such as drug-resistant tuberculosis, the provision of support to rural villages, and the delivery of basic medicines, such as antibiotics and pain relief.

How will a heartless dictator be moved to action if his citizens suffer even more? Cutting off humanitarian aid will not motivate Kim Jong-un and will only further harm the helpless people of North Korea.

The sanctions against North Korea not only fail because they provoke aggression and prevent humanitarian aid, but they also create a political show devoid of any positive development in international relations and safety. But do not confuse my desire for peace as support for North Korea. No one can deny the human rights abuses of its dictator which must be addressed in any negotiation with the country.

After the most recent round of sanctions against North Korea, the United States and South Korea held the largest live-military demonstration to demonstrate their willingness to be aggressive against North Korea. The response from North Korea was violent rhetoric threatening a nuclear strike against South Korea. While military demonstrations may look like we are standing up to a bully, they, in fact, do nothing more than anger an already aggressive nation. A demonstration of military force will tempt North Korea to match it, leading to a 21st century Cold War Arms Race.

The solution to the North Korean nuclear problem must be pragmatic and not based on an ideal world. Sanctions and showings of military force aren’t working. North Korea is still developing its nuclear technologies and will keep going—sanctions be damned. For the safety of our world and the people of North Korea, we must open up negotiations with North Korea. The US was able to reach a deal with Iran; we can do the same with North Korea.

Many will counter that the United Nations is trying to set up talks with North Korea. But talks under the threat of force will not be effective, it’s the exact threat of military force that causes North Korea to hold onto its nuclear program. It sees its nuclear program as its last wild card—its ace—that will keep the United States and Seoul at bay. The answer isn’t simple and needs to start with mutual trust between the US, North Korea, and the international community.

To begin talks, the US and other nations must give up some of their pride and see themselves on equal footing with North Korea. While this is a bold suggestion, no other strategy has been successful in the past in bringing North Korea to the bargaining table. Willingness to engage in talks without the threat of sanctions isn’t weakness, it’s strength and courage. It’s being able to say, “We are willing to negotiate because we believe in the safety of our world and the citizens of North Korea.” Let us find a different path—one that involves equality of bargaining rather than sanctions that breed “incurable hatreds.”