Sanctions Won’t Stop North Korea’s Nuclear Program. But That’s Not the Point.

4726022992_aa490f5925_oGlobe at the U.N. JJ/Flickr

In response to North Korea’s latest—and largest—nuclear ballistic missile test, the United Nations Security Council approved another round of sanctions against the rogue state. The resolution bans textile exports, caps oil imports, and restricts employment of North Korean workers abroad. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley called the new sanctions “the strongest measures ever imposed on North Korea.”

But will they put an end to the regime’s nuclear and missile programs?

Probably not. The final resolution is, after all, a diluted version of the original. After negotiations with Russia and China, the U.S. dropped its harsher demands, which included a full oil embargo and a travel ban on Kim Jong-un. According to a report by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, even a full oil embargo would have limited long-term impact, as North Korea could find alternative sources of fuel.

Policymakers have long turned to economic sanctions as a way to change another state’s behavior—often with little success. When the Kennedy administration adopted the decades-long U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, its intended goal was to force the country to adopt a democracy. Yet Castro’s regime outlasted nine different U.S. presidential administrations.

And the case of Cuba isn’t an anomaly. In an assessment of sanctions applications from 1914 to 1990, political scientist Robert Pape came to the dismal conclusion that a mere five out of 115 applications accomplished their intended goals.

To understand why policymakers continue to turn to sanctions despite their apparent futility, we need to look not only at what they achieve, but also what they express. Even when they fail to bring about an ambitious policy or regime change, sanctions give world leaders the opportunity to construct a narrative—about themselves, the target state, and the current political moment.

So what do the sanctions against North Korea express?

First, they paint North Korea as a violator of international norms. The resolution “condemns” the country’s most recent nuclear test, calling it a “flagrant disregard of the Security Council’s resolutions.” By denouncing North Korea for its inappropriate behavior, the Security Council is reinforcing its outsider status among the international community.

The Security Council also expressed “deep concern at the grave hardship” North Korean citizens endure, lamenting that their country is “pursuing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles instead of the welfare of its people.” Here, sanctions help characterize North Korea as an unjust and heartless state—one that cares more about weapons of mass destruction than the dignity of its people.

In reprimanding North Korea, the sanctioning states are also telling an important story about themselves. By standing up against an outlier in the name of global security, the Security Council is reaffirming its role as an institution that upholds international law.

But more importantly, the latest round of U.N. sanctions has given the Security Council the opportunity to demonstrate collective resolve. By accommodating the concerns of Russia and China, the U.S. showed that it cared more about international agreement than harsh sanctions. In a unanimous 15-0 vote, the world’s leading powers—who seem to agree on little these days—showed solidarity in the face of an international threat.

Of course, the U.N. resolution won’t mean the end of North Korea’s nuclear tests or its pursuit of a nuclear arsenal. But if sanctions are stories told to a global audience, then this week, we’ve heard a rare and encouraging tale of international unity.

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