Rethinking UN Sanctions on North Korea

The escalation in intra-Korean tensions of recent days is very disquieting. While North Korea frequently blusters and berates, the level of invective between the Kim Jong Il regime and that of President Lee of South Korea is worrisome, and the potential does exist for further escalation.

We should not lose our verve in the face of DPRK threats. North Korea committed mass murder on March 26, in killing 46 South Korean sailors, and must pay a price. But we also need a response that while firm and resolute does not run a high risk of provoking a spiral of further North Korean provocations, which could again turn violent. We also should seek an approach tailored to the specifics of this situation.

I am concerned that the “same ole same ole” approach of simply seeking another round of UN sanctions on North Korea is not optimal. To be sure, North Korea has no legitimate basis for complaining about any such punishment. But it smacks of conventional wisdom, and it also risks countereactions by the North.

I would favor an approach that in effect sought to impose reparations payments on North Korea for the loss of life. While no amount of money can bring back the brave South Korean sailors, this approach would impose a real cost on North Korea. It would provide some compensation to the South Korean families who have lost loved ones. It would be firmly grounded in international law and precedent, such as the demands made on Libya by the international community to resolve the sanctions imposed on that state after the Lockerbie Pan Am plane bombing atrocity. That would make it harder for North Korea to complain that it had been treated unfairly. In addition, there would be an end date; once the reparation had been paid, the punishment could cease (though pre-existing sanctions that had been imposed for other reasons, notably nuclear tests, could endure thereafter).

Of course, North Korea will not accept anyone’s finding that it should pay reparations—presumably in the hundreds of millions of dollars range, perhaps a bit less. But South Korea, and the United States, through a reduction in trade and aid dealings with the DPRK for a several-month period, can achieve that outcome without North Korean permission. Ideally the UN Security Council would support such an approach, and call on other countries such as China not to compensate North Korea for the lost resources as Seoul and Washington exacted the penalty through direct action.

This approach would build on what South Korea is already suggesting in some ways. But it would give a specificity, a finite duration, and a strong legal basis for the action. I think it makes more sense than open-ended sanctions, which China ultimately may or may not support in any event.