nuclear programs

North Korea and sanctions: seriously funny or deadly serious?

Kim Jong-un is sometimes an object of ridicule. But, the threat from his regime is no laughing matter. Neither are sanctions. Is the situation worsening and are we doing enough?

I find it difficult to see images of Kim Jong-un without thinking of my son. No, it’s not that I expect him to grow up to become the dictator of a Stalinist state. Hopefully, not…! 😉

It’s just that when he started secondary school his teacher asked the class to say what would make the world a better place. Of course, the usual things came up such as “world peace” and “an end to hunger”. Noble ideals. And things we would hope our children would aspire to. My son – not really known for being the class wag – said: “I’d arrange for Kim Jong-un to get a new hairdresser.”

As a parent, I was mortified. In my day, that would have earned a clip round the ear from the teacher. But, I also thought it was rather funny. And perhaps getting Kim a new haircut might help him to feel better about himself, moderate his behavior, and secure world peace. 😉

North Korean regime: the comedy factor

There is something darkly comical about the North Korean regime, though.

Kim Jong-un himself has the look of a James Bond villain. And those soldiers goose-stepping in front of rockets that look like they were made in a garden shed seem somewhat absurd. Apparently, though, North Korean goose-stepping is rather difficult. Check out the Guardian’s short guide on “How to march like the North Korean military”.

I don’t think it’s just me. The number of Kim Jong-un memes appears to point to others also finding the regime seriously funny.

Hollywood has also got in on the act. The 2014 comedy “The Interview” about a fictional CIA plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un provoked extreme displeasure in Pyongyang. The movie triggered a cyber-attack against Sony Pictures and also prompted North Korea’s government to denounce the film as a “wanton act of terror”.

Despite the comedy factor, it seems the North Korean regime can’t take a joke.

The reality is sometimes even more bizarre

The actual behavior of Kim Jong-un and his regime can also be rather strange.

North Korea’s isolation from the world community was brought into sharp focus in 2013 when – instead of meeting with a fellow world leader – Kim Jong-un met with US basketball star Dennis Rodman. An interesting move from a totalitarian leader with such an anti-American stance. But also something of a publicity coup for Kim, I guess, especially given that Rodman described him as an “awesome guy”.

More embarrassing for the North Korean regime was the revelation – also in 2013 – that it had “photo-shopped” photos of marine landing craft. A very clear but clumsy attempt to exaggerate its military might.

Even the sanctions against North Korea sometimes seem a bit odd. In 2016, amongst other measures, the UN imposed a ban on the export of statues as one of the punishments in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear tests. Statues? Yes, statues.

Statues happen to be one of North Korea’s most successful exports. The country began exporting them to Africa decades ago as diplomatic gestures. But in about 2000, they started to sell them. These statues very much appeal to authoritarian African leaders looking for grand symbols of their power. It’s all the rage. The industry brings in roughly $10 million annually for North Korea. Not a huge amount, I guess. But, certainly money that I wouldn’t want the regime to have access to.

Human rights abuses and the nuclear program

The terrible reality, of course, is that it’s not so funny at all.

North Korea remains one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Human rights abuses are rife. Murder, enslavement, torture, public executions, and sexual violence are key parts of the regime’s modus operandi.

In 2014, a special UN commission stated that: “In many instances, the violations of human rights found by the commission constitute crimes against humanity. These are not mere excesses of the State; they are essential components of a political system that has moved far from the ideals on which it claims to be founded. The gravity, scale and nature of these violations revealed a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

Pyongyang’s nuclear program also remains a source of deep concern.

The regime claims to have conducted five successful nuclear tests in a little over a decade. It is still a matter of debate as to how viable North Korea’s weapons are. Is the nuclear material plutonium or uranium? Are the devices tested hydrogen bombs or atomic bombs? What range do these missiles really have?

Important questions. But, to my mind, also somewhat academic. The threat is real and growing.

Kim Jong-un: “Acting very, very badly”

Following North Korea’s test of a new type of high-thrust rocket engine on March 19, Donald Trump told reporters that Kim Jong-un was “acting very, very badly”. Quite an uncharacteristically understated remark from the US president. It makes Kim sound like a naughty schoolboy.

The recent assassination of Kim’s half-brother at Kuala Lumpur airport reinforces my impression that things are getting worse. Of course, much of what North Korea does is saber-rattling. But, their nuclear program is advancing and they appear to be more brazen in their rejection of norms of international behavior.

Does this mean that sanctions don’t work?

I don’t believe so. My feeling is that the sanctions are not tough enough. Plus, sanctions must be supplemented with other measures.

In an excellent testimony prepared for the House Foreign Affairs Committee dated February 7, Korea expert Victor D. Cha stated that: “There will be many who criticize sanctions as being ineffective. Sanctions are the most maligned instrument in the diplomatic toolbox. The reality is that we don’t know whether sanctions work until they do.”

He argues that we should “keep the pressure on and expand the scope” of sanctions whilst also adopting a range of other measures including persuading China and Russia to exert more pressure on North Korea. As he says, “China is both part of the problem with North Korea and part of the solution.”

The international community must do more. A truly coordinated policy on North Korea needs to be developed. Sanctions have to be strengthened. Diplomacy should be stepped-up. Nuclear non-proliferation has to be enforced. Human rights violations must not be ignored.

It’s high time to end this tragicomedy.

If you have any comments or remarks, I’d be happy to exchange with you in this blog forum. Or you can get in touch with me via LinkedIn.