Today Morning Feature will look at economic sanctions in North Korea. Sanctions punish citizens for the acts of their governments. Does it work? What is the human cost? This is a case where the morality of confronting immoral governments meets the morality of caring for human life. (More)

The Tuesday Digging Deeper Morning Feature surveys an ongoing news topic through multiple sources to invite in-depth conversation. Please check back over the coming days for additional comments. This week’s Digging Deeper topic is North Korea and, more specifically, the efficacy and morality of imposing economic sanctions on North Korea to try to force it to be a better actor on the global stage.

North and South Korea have been in the news lately because of President Obama’s visit to Asia. An article yesterday in the International Herald-Tribune about North Korean defections piqued my interest. The discussion in Monday’s Morning Feature about hawks trying to gin up a war with Iran started me thinking about the North Korean people, the economic sanctions placed on that dictatorship and how they trickle down to the populace. And it made me want to Dig Deeper.

I was struck by this comment by NCrissieB regarding a columnist advocating war against Iran: “I imagined how an ordinary Iranian citizen might feel upon hearing of calls for Americans to invade their country and kill their children.”

We have a range of options to try to force a regime to adhere to the laws of the global community. On one end of the continuum is invading their country (the stick) and on the other end is the promise of trade and help for their economy (the carrot). Somewhere in the middle is placing economic sanctions on their government and, essentially, their people.

The Current Regime

Asia Times BOOK REVIEW: Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty by Bradley K Martin.

The two Kims are the only leaders North Korea has ever known since its establishment as a separate state from the South in September 1948. Not only that, but perhaps no leader anywhere in human history has so thoroughly dominated a country as either of the Kims has.[…]

Writing accurately about North Korea is always a formidable challenge, given the country’s isolation from the rest of the world, the totalitarian nature of the regime and its all-powerful propaganda machine, and the fact that enemies of the country have disseminated disinformation over the years.[…]

Martin acknowledges that from the 1950s to the 1970s, the North Korean economy grew rapidly, bringing about considerable benefits to the population, such as a higher gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, life expectancy and literacy levels. Indeed, it was only in 1976 that South Korea’s GDP per capita overtook the North’s. Nonetheless, Martin’s book cannot help but paint a bleak and even horrific picture of life in North Korea, and indeed, the system formed by the Kims, father and son. […]

While conventional wisdom holds that the US is unlikely to attack North Korea, in view of Pyongyang’s massive retaliatory capabilities against South Korea and Japan, it is nonetheless discomforting that many defectors interviewed by Martin describe how North Koreans actually want war. So dire has the economic situation become, and so intense is the anti-US propaganda, that the population would prefer death and destruction in a patriotic war to the monotony of daily life and slow death by starvation.

Economy of North Korea

North Korea’s economy remains one of the world’s last centrally planned systems. The role of market allocation is sharply limited – mainly in the rural sector where peasants sell produce from small private plots. There are almost no small businesses.[…]

In the 1990s North Korea saw stagnation turning into crisis. Economic assistance received from the former USSR and China was an important factor of its economic growth. In 1991 the former USSR withdrew its support and demanded for payment in hard currency for imports. […] Deprived of industrial inputs, including fertilizers, pesticides, and electricity for irrigation, agricultural output also started to decrease even before North Korea had a series of natural disasters in the mid-1990s… caus[ing] one of the worst economic crises in North Korea’s history. Other causes of this crisis were high defense spending (about 25% of GDP) and bad governance. It is estimated that between 1992 and 1998 North Korea’s economy contracted by 50% and several hundred thousand (possibly up to 3 million) people died of starvation.

The Economy and Sanctions

Views Show How North Korea Policy Spread Misery

Like many North Koreans, the construction worker lived in penury. His state employer had not paid him for so long that he had forgotten his salary. Indeed, he paid his boss to be listed as a dummy worker so that he could leave his work site. Then he and his wife could scrape out a living selling small bags of detergent on the black market. It hardly seemed that life could get worse. And then, one Saturday afternoon last November, his sister burst into his apartment in Chongjin with shocking news: the North Korean government had decided to drastically devalue the nation’s currency. The family’s life savings, about $1,560, had been reduced to about $30. […]

Widespread hardship, popular anger over the currency revaluation and growing political uncertainty as Mr. Kim seeks to install his third son as his successor have not hardened into noticeable resistance against the government. At least two of those interviewed in China hewed to the official propaganda line that North Korea was a victim of die-hard enemies, its impoverishment a Western plot, its survival threatened by the United States, South Korea and Japan.

Economic sanctions strengthen North Korea’s dictatorship, says German NGO

Economic sanctions by the United States and other western countries is actually strengthening the Kim Jong-il’s regime, a German social worker involved with a non-government organization told reporters here this morning. Sanctions are also affecting life in other ways like the new-found emphasis on sustainable agriculture, she said.

“The leaders are using the sanctions as a justification. People believe the country is in a bad condition because of outside forces,” Karin Janz, country director in North Korea for the German NGO Welthungerhilfe, said while speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Beijing. The official media justified its actions as efforts to fortify the nation against the onslaught of foreign forces, and the people fully believed it, she said.

The sanctions have hit the North Korean agriculture and caused fears of a worsening of the food situation, Karin said. “The North Korean agriculture is highly industrialized,” she said while explaining the country’s agriculture is heavily dependent on imported farm machines and chemical fertilizers. Most of these materials came from South Korea, which has now slammed the doors.

The People’s Life

The cultural life of North Korea

North Korea’s 65th anniversary of the Workers’ Party offered a rare insight of every day life in the capital Pyongyang.[…]

“Nobody who lives in Pyongyang is an ordinary person. This is the top five to 10% of the population,” points out Barbara Demick, whose book Nothing To Envy offers a vivid account of ordinary life in North Korea.[…]

There are certainly signs of change here: Air Koryo has new planes and three gleaming airport buses to ferry passengers from runway to terminal. Last week a vast new theatre opened, as did an apartment complex, although it may be destined for officials. The 105-storey Ryugyong hotel – more than two decades in construction – is finally glass-sheathed and due to open in 2012.[…]

But away from the handful of show projects there is little sign of improvement in ordinary lives. Overloaded trolley buses wheeze along, more rust than steel. One reporter sees a woman and child apparently digging for roots in a park. The country has been heavily reliant on food handouts since the 90s, when hundreds of thousands died. Those who have visited the countryside recently say residents are visibly gaunt, even in farming areas.

North Korea Defections on Rise, South Says

Defections from North Korea have risen markedly in recent years, South Korean officials said Monday, driven both by worsening economic conditions and more news from abroad filtering into the secretive communist state.

About 2,900 people defected to the South last year, said Lee Jong-joo, an official with the Unification Ministry, and more than 2,000 have defected so far this year. She cited “humanitarian reasons, including the food situation,” as being among the leading reasons cited for defecting and said that 70 percent of defectors were women. […]

Ms. Lee said the woman and her sons, like all defectors, would be sequestered and interrogated by military intelligence agents for about three months. They will then spend another three months in Hanawon, a state-run orientation facility that teaches newcomers about South Korean government, society and daily life. They are taught how to shop for groceries and other necessities, open a bank account, use a cellphone, enroll in schools and look for jobs.

It is not always a happy transition, despite the deprivations and political repression in the impoverished North and the relative freedom and material comforts in the South. Northerners are often viewed with suspicion by South Koreans, who see them as rough and unsophisticated.


I encourage you to follow the links and read the articles.

Here are some questions to get us started, not in any order and not intended to be all inclusive:
– When you punish a rogue regime do you punish the government or the people or both?
– Does the punishment make the leaders more or less likely to see your point?
– Who decides which nations should be “punished”?
– Do economic sanctions ever work? When and why?
– How can you make a nation be a better actor on the world stage?
– If a people cannot effect their own regime change (as in a dictatorship), what do the sanctions do?


Please share your thoughts and additional links in the Comments.


At BPI our Progressive Agenda is:
1. People matter more than profits.
• Corollary: Each person matters … equally.
2. The earth is our home, not our trash can.
3. We need good government for both #1 and #2.