As North Korea’s nuclear program advances at an uncomfortably brisk pace, Americans are considering courses of action that range from launching a preemptive strike to ratcheting up already severe sanctions.
But are sanctions really the way to go?
Last week, at a hearing held by the House Foreign Affairs Committee with officials from the Treasury and State Departments, legislators suggested that placing unilateral sanctions on China might be the most potent means to compel them to urge North Korea—which relies on China for 92 percent of its trade—to curtail its nuclear program. While this seems like a tantalizingly straightforward course of action, it would almost certainly do more harm than good.
To its credit, China is currently complying with United Nations sanctions on North Korea—though Chinese and Russian policymakers did succeed in making those sanctions a little less harsh than the U.S. originally intended. Both China and Russia assumed that draconian sanctions would not only damage North Korea’s nuclear program, but would precipitate scenarios as chilling as a North Korean first strike or as unmanageable as a refugee crisis. So, without the United Nations sanctions the U.S. had hoped for, it isn’t surprising that legislators are lustily eyeing China.
Rep Brad Sherman (D-CA), a particularly vocal proponent of placing unilateral sanctions on China, contended at the hearing that “We are not doing enough to force them [China] to change their behavior, which is to punish North Korea a little bit for being a little bit too flamboyant.” And certainly, the U.S. does have ample economic leverage at its disposal to remind China of our infinite distaste for nuclear flamboyance.
China is one of America’s principal trading partners. Americans spend $462.8 billion on Chinese goods and $16.1 billion on Chinese services annually. America is a good customer and withholding our business would possibly be a substantial enough threat to the Chinese economy to induce them to adopt a less lenient attitude toward North Korea. However, there’s reason to suppose that even if that were the case, unilateral sanctions would still fail.
Sanctions work best when imposed by a consortium of countries on a small economically toothless country. They rarely work when imposed unilaterally on a large economically robust country—like China. Historically, most sanctions have been duds—some spectacularly, as with Napoleon’s continental blockade of the United Kingdom, and some embarrassingly, as with the U.S.’s enduring embargo on Cuba, which has, despite half a century of persistence, yet to yield any impressive policy reforms. Just as Cuba hasn’t yielded to economic pressure, North Korea probably won’t yield either, even if that pressure were immense.
North Korea’s nuclear program isn’t merely a functional division of its military, it is a sanctified pledge made by Kim Jong Un to his people. Seen through the lens of Juche—North Korea’s fanatical political theology—the nuclear program’s very existence is inextricably knotted to North Korea’s destiny. To suppose that economic pressure from China could tempt Kim Jong Un to prune a single silo from his nuclear laurels, is ridiculous. As Vladimir Putin put it, “they’d rather eat grass than give up their nuclear program.” He’s probably right, and what’s more is that sanctions wouldn’t just be fruitless, they’d be harmful to Americans.
Just as China reaps the benefits of America’s patronage, America reaps the benefits of theirs. Americans export $115.8 billion in goods and $69.6 billion in services to China. Trade with China supports roughly 911, 000 American jobs. Placing sanctions on China would effectively cut off millions of American manufacturers and service providers from their customers, and would likely cause a sizeable number of Americans to lose their jobs. Lack of access to the Chinese market would raise the cost of a variety of currently affordable goods, like apple juice and umbrellas, that are a normal part of the American lifestyle. The high cost of placing sanctions on China hardly seems worth the scant likelihood that they’ll be successful.
Despite the hefty costs and odds of failure, it remains understandable that legislators find the idea of placing sanctions on China a fetching solution to the problem of North Korea’s nuclear program. Nuclear war is too appalling to contemplate and inaction too indecent to accept. Ultimately, economic sanctions allow legislators to ignore the frustrations of serious diplomacy while sidestepping accusations of idleness––they are no substitute for good foreign policy.
Michael Shindler is an Advocate with Young Voices. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelShindler.