On Nov. 30, 2016 the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to increase various sanctions on North Korea in reaction to the country’s repeated long-range nuclear missile tests.
The original sanctions, issued in March 2016, were an effort to stifle the country’s nuclear weapons testing and manufacturing. These sanctions were political as well as economic: a pledge to reduce the country’s coal and mineral exports, which contribute largely to its economy, and a tightened surveillance on certain individuals who have ties to weapons trade and development.
Since then, however, North Korea’s coal exports increased, prompting the Security Council to amend the original sanctions in favor of stricter demands. The new sanctions delineate harsher restrictions, planning to cut $700 million annually in coal exports. It also keeps an eye on North Korea’s overseas bank accounts, and expands the list of individuals sanctioned from travel or assets and under surveillance.
The implementation of these new sanctions lies in the hands of North Korea’s chief consumer of coal exports, China. The Chinese government (as well as South Korea) supported the U.N. resolution because North Korea’s arming itself is seen as a threat to stability in the region.
Although economic sanctions are typically justified politically, Portland State professor of International Ethics Aleksander Jokic asks whether or not they can be justified on moral grounds as well. In a Foreign Policy Journal article titled, “Why Western sanctions against Russia will not be lifted any time soon,” Jokic says sanctions, whether unilaterally applied or by a body such as the U.N., are usually morally akin to an act of war.
Jokic says that sanctions are a virtual punishment for some perceived wrongdoing by bodies who possess the ability and power to distribute such punishment. Sanctions should not be “unlike a court ruling,” as Jokic states, in that the punished always deserve the right to at least some terms by which, upon their completion, their sentence is lifted (akin to a prison sentence). Jokic argues that sanctions do not usually take this form.
Sanctions, being parts of ongoing disputes between nation-states, tend to develop alongside the situations which put them into place. This tendency leads to the rational conclusion that sanctioning states will amend their sanctions as international tensions oscillate, as they almost always do. Coupled with the fact that sanctions take place across sovereign borders of various states, this means that sanctions may be considered, perhaps by their very nature even, a more belligerent form of international relations in that they do not reflect the fulfillment of conditions prescribed by some established system of laws. It is in this way that sanctions are more akin to an act of war, according to Jokic, and thus less morally justifiable.
Jokic also argues that in many cases, sanctions are only the catalyst to counter-sanction upon counter-sanction coming from the opposing sides; this sort of behavior can also be attributed to states in wartime.
As the sanctions have been amended, this point of comparison in Jokic’s analysis is likely prescient. Further, North Korea has already rejected the resolution, which means that the scenario will most likely enter yet another phase, eventually requiring yet another amendment to the U.N. sanctions.