Sanctions are merely warfare by another name
The most successful murder, it is said, is one that is not recognized as murder but can be passed off as suicide or accident. This avoids the problem of disposing of the body, a dangerous and troublesome thing according to the literature and one which the Saudi hit team that killed Jamal Khashoggi labored over mightily. More importantly, if there is no murder, then there is no search for a murderer.
Sanctions, used as covert warfare, share these attributes, which is one reason for their popularity. Not the only one of course. They can be virtually cost free, and pose no danger, to the perpetrator. “Sanctions” is used here as shorthand for an array of instruments, mainly economic, that can be deployed to devastate an enemy, to induce surrender or to lay the foundations for assault.
Some covert actions are primarily propaganda, with no real military purpose. False-flag operations to start a war—Marco Polo Bridge—or to instigate action by more powerful actors—the chemical warfare incidents in Syria—are designed to achieve a covert purpose. Indeed, false-flag events tend, by their nature, to inflict more damage on the perpetrator, posing as the victim, than the target, the alleged culprit. For example, the chemical and biological weapons (CBW) attacks in Syria were, it would seem, self-inflicted.
Sanctions, however, do have a definite military purpose, that may or may not be achieved, as well as a false narrative to disguise the perpetrator or purpose. The covertness in this case is an add-on to make the military action politically acceptable, to domestic or international opinion, but the sanctions themselves have a function that needs to be analysed.
Types of Sanctions
Depriving an enemy of food, drink, or resources—starving the enemy into submission—is as old as warfare itself, and the castle siege, or cutting of supply lines, are the stuff of popular military history. Modern variants include blockage of physical, financial, informational and personnel resources, reinforced by propaganda:
- Physical: Trade—blocking of exports or imports either by fiat or physical means (usually interdiction at sea); export controls
- Financial: Blocking access to the international banking network and seizure of assets.
Propaganda and demonization
This is covert action par excellence because the actual constraint is not direct. Demonization of the enemy serves many purposes, sanctions being a minor part of the mix. The usual technique is to claim that the country endorses or accepts “slave labor”, imprisons its people unjustly. An alternative theme is that revenue obtained by sales will flow into weapons that “threaten the world.” The case of Noko jeans, for example, involved a group of young Swedes unsuccessfully marketing jeans made in North Korea:
A public debate erupted in Sweden over whether it was ethically permissible to produce jeans in a dictatorship that confines its own people to labor camps and threatens the world with nuclear weapons.
Current examples of restriction of human movement are Trump’s Muslim Ban, his ban on U.S. citizens (very much an American tradition) and various restrictions on North Korean, Iranian and Russian citizens. Perhaps the most telling case is the veto ban on judges of the International Court of Justice investigating American war crimes in Afghanistan.
Economically, however, the most destructive have been attempts to curtail North Koreans working overseas. Remittances from overseas workers are a substantial part of many economies; for instance, of the Bulgarian workforce, 42% work abroad. In this context, the number and proportion of North Koreans working abroad is insignificant; one estimateis 50,000 people, perhaps 0.3% of the labor force, remitting in total about $500 million a year.
Still, this is seen as unacceptable to the U.S. and pressure is applied to countries via the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to prohibit the employment of North Koreans. The pretext is that they are “slave labor”, a charge which the South Korea-based scholar Andrei Lankov, a fierce critic of North Korea, easily debunks, pointing out that “A few years of hard work overseas is a dream destination for any North Korean worker, and competition for such jobs is stiff.”
This is a cruel irony: during the colonial period, the Japanese conscripted about 2 million Koreans to work as forced laborers in Japan and its empire, an issue which still festers in Korea today. Between 1965 and 1973, South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee sent some 300,000 troops to aid the Americans in Vietnam, providing the major source of foreign exchange in some years. Park’s troops were infamous for their brutality and their atrocities still haunt South Korea-Vietnam relations today.
Direct and Indirect Sanctions
Direct sanctions can be bilateral, which are either mutual (Britain blockades Germany with ships, Germany blockades Britain with U-boats), or effectively unilateral due to economic or strategic imbalance. Indirect sanctions are covert, working through proxy countries, or groups of them, to inflict damage. Because the U.S. has been in an adversarial relationship with so many target countries for so long, direct sanctions often have a limited effect – for example, there is little trade between the U.S. and North Korea to sanction.
The rise of China, and its global reach as the major trading partner of so many countries, necessitates Washington increasingly having to turn to third party countries in its economic war with Beijing. This makes indirect sanctions increasingly important and, because of America’s power, often imposed if not always fully implemented. What happens is contingent on the strength of the pressured country and the value of the opportunity foregone to comply with U.S. demands. Huawei’s 5G technology leads the world and poses a serious threat to U.S. hegemony in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and in international surveillance. New Zealand caved in without public demur to U.S. demands to block Huawei; Germany is proving more resistant.
The U.S. not only attempts to force third party countries to curtail their relationship with China, but also pressures China—for instance, by threatening exclusion from the U.S. banking network—to sanction targets such as Iran and North Korea. One of the most poignant examples of such bullying is Namibia. North Korea, in contrast to the U.S., gave significant support to Namibia in its decolonization struggle and subsequent economic development. Nonetheless, the Namibian government was forced in 2017 to terminate its contracts with North Korea—very reluctantly, even sending the deputy prime minister to Pyongyang to apologize. Namibia’s reluctance is evident in that it was not until March 2019 that all North Korean workers had been sent home.
Namibia was forced to comply with U.S. demands not merely because of direct pressure from Washington but also because of United Nations sanctions forbidding countries to employ North Korean workers. That the U.S. can use the UN as a covert instrument of war is a testament to its power and the current failure of international institutions to uphold the norms of international law, as exemplified by the UN Charter, in the face of that power. This is discussed below.
The reach, and often pettiness, of the U.S. government’s use of the UN in its covert war against countries such as North Korea is truly astounding. For instance, a New Zealand bank has recently unilaterally terminated the account of a South Korean resident because he has been conducting hiking tours to North Korea and this breaches “sanctions obligations”.
The United States’ Weapon of Choice
The U.S. did not invent modern sanctions—Wikipedia gives a long list—but it is by far the major user, and it has increasingly used them as its weapon of choice. A recent State Department seminar on Iran, for example, was entitled “Sanctions: A Key Foreign Policy Tool.”
With an insatiable imperial appetite for global reach, the U.S. has some 1,000 bases around the world and is in some sort of conflict, either kinetic (e.g., Afghanistan) or non-kinetic, with a multitude of others. Non-kinetic conflict ranges from using tariffs in trade disputes (e.g. with the E.U. or Canada), to sanctions such as those against Iran or North Korea. In between, we get things such as the exercise of extraterritoriality in the “kidnapping” of Meng Wanzhou.
Britain, with its overwhelming seapower, was the major exponent from the late 18th century (against the revolutionary U.S. for one) until the First World War, but the U.S. caught up with, and then greatly surpassed, its mentor. Gary Hufbauer, the doyen of U.S. scholarship on sanctions, starts with the U.S. blockade of Japan in 1917. Enemies come and go, but the longest uninterrupted victim of U.S. sanctions is North Korea, on whom sanctions were first imposed in 1950 with two objectives, according to Hufbauer: impair military potential and destabilize communist government. “Destabilization”, the most frequent objective listed in Hufbauer’s lengthy table of U.S. sanctions, is a precursor of collapse, regime change and the extension of American power.
Sanctions are popular with the U.S. for a number of reasons. There are no U.S. casualties and none of the body bags that forced the U.S. to withdraw from Vietnam and led to the Vietnam Syndrome. Since the U.S. is the largest economy in the world sanctions can usually be deployed with no discernible impact on its own economy. Iraqi children may die, North Korean children may be malnourished, but U.S. business is unscathed. This depends on the relative size of the target economy and China is rapidly becoming very dangerous to meddle with. That is going to become a major issue over the next decade. But China aside, for the moment sanctions can be employed with economic impunity even against substantial economies such as Russia.
Bad Foreign Policy, Good for Business
Attractive though sanctions might be, there is some consensus among experts that they are usually ineffective. Basically, if the government of the target country judges that the consequences of succumbing to U.S. demands are worse than the pain to be endured, then there will be no surrender. There may well be negotiations, such as the February 2019 Hanoi summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, but not capitulation. One factor, of course, is that sanctions disproportionately target the vulnerable—the poor, children, elderly, etc.—rather than the leadership. However, the issue is deeper than this; few would suggest that Winston Churchill refused to surrender to Adolf Hitler in the early 1940s just because he had adequate supplies of brandy and cigars.
Sanctions can also be counterproductive; U.S. imposed sanctions on Russia, for example, caused a rise in Putin’s popularity. Sanctions are not unique in this paradoxical effect: the use of drones to assassinate tribal leaders in the Middle East has been similarly counterproductive, resulting in more attacks on U.S. forces rather than fewer. However, as long as the instruments are cost- and risk-free, the results are not really important, because the U.S. is so much bigger and more powerful than its adversaries. Apparently ineffective foreign policy is actually mostly driven by domestic considerations; the posturing of politicians waving the patriot flag, the voracious appetite of the military-industrial complex, and the pervasive needs of the permanent war economy. Mistakes and failures have marginal impact, and can often be explained away or advanced as an argument for more of the same.
In this context, sanctions, assassinations and the other nefarious tactics might be seen as devices not for winning wars, but for prolonging them. This geopolitical insouciance does not apply to less exceptional nations. Napoleon invaded Russia, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and Hirohito attacked the U.S., all with disastrous results; nothing comparable has happened to America as a consequence of its overseas adventures. Even the defeat in Vietnam was exorcized when Reagan invaded Grenada with its army of 600 men. He subsequently declared a famous victory and awarded “more medals per soldier than any military operation in U.S. history.”
Suffering of Innocents
While sanctions may be ineffective, and even counterproductive, as a policy instrument, they are most certainly cruel, inflicting huge damage on the target country and its people, especially the poor and powerless. It was reported in 2016 that the U.S. embargo had cost Cuba $116 billion. A North Korea statement in 2014 estimated the cost of war and sanctions at 114 trillion U.S. dollars. Alfred de Zayas, an American lawyer serving as a special rapporteur for the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) was blisteringly critical of the effect of U.S.-led sanctions on the people of Venezuela in a September 2018 report:
His report was neglected by the HRC, and does not appear to be accessible, as it should be, on the UN system websites, but he has published a paraphrasing on his personal website.
Despite the claims about “smart sanctions“, economic sanctions are essentially weapons of mass destruction and, like other WMDs, they are both indiscriminate and most affect the vulnerable. Economies are basically fungible: If sanctions prevent the export of oil or coal, then the imports of food and medicines come under pressure. Financial sanctions result in banks not being willing to facilitate imports, even of medicines. If a city is carpet-bombed, it is the generals and politicians in deep bunkers who are safest; if sanctions raise the price of imported medicines, it is the poor who go without.
Sanctions, if fully implemented—and fortunately, this is difficult to achieve, even for the U.S.—can potentially result in famine; in practice, attempting to starve the enemy into submission. Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon argued that using starvation as a weapon of war was a “war crime”; Ban, never one to antagonize the U.S., leveled his criticism at the Syrian government and made no mention of the hunger of his compatriots in North Korea.
Nevertheless the risk is constantly present, that some may draw the connection between U.S.-led sanctions and the plight of the victims. Then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in a 60 Minutes TV interview in 1996, made the embarrassing admission when asked to comment on reports that sanctions had killed half a million Iraqi children that, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.”
Clearly this “massacre of the innocents” is a vulnerable PR risk for the U.S., and any other governments employing sanctions. The solution has been sought in covert war techniques in obscuring the truth and propagating myths.
Sanctions and the Construction of Myths
An important aspect of covert warfare—including the use of sanctions as a weapon—is the construction of mythical narratives that obscure the role and motivations of the perpetrator, and deflect responsibility for consequences to the victim or elsewhere. Focusing on the U.S., with particular attention on its sanctions against North Korea, Venezuela and Iran, there are at least five myths which stand out.
1. The Suicide Myth – Blaming the Victim
Kim Jong Un, we have been told by no less an authority than Donald Trump, is a madman who doesn’t mind starving or killing his people. It is an allegation frequently repeated by journalists and others, and the same was said of his father and grandfather, and of anyone who earns the ire of the U.S.; Presidents Assad of Syria and Maduro of Venezuela seem to have the same proclivity. Even the seemingly august and impartial UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights accused the North Korean government of the “inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”
Why governments would deliberately starve their people, whom they need for factories, farms and armies, is a bit difficult to rationalize, so the usual alternative explanation is social, political or economic “mismanagement”. Thus, Andrew Natsios, who served under George W. Bush, tells us the problem is systemic dysfunction, Anna Fifield, in the Washington Post, talks of decades of economic mismanagement and Nicholas Eberstadt, of the American Enterprise Institute, grandly identifies state failure. It may be wondered why the U.S. should bother with sanctions against North Korea, or other countries it targets, if their governments are so addicted to self-harm. One of the charges that Eberstadt levels, for instance, is that North Korea makes “conspicuously little . . . effort to penetrate these lucrative markets . . . of the world’s most advanced economies.” Why impose trade sanctions if North Korea does not want to trade?
Sanctions on North Korea, as elsewhere such as in Syria, create economic distress and lead to economic migration. When such refugees are not welcome they are called illegal migrants brought in by people smugglers, are much condemned and appallingly treated. North Koreans who flee hunger are called “defectors” even though in the great majority of cases their motivation is not political. Those who reach South Korea lured by promises of cash handouts and the spiel of brokers are usually very disappointed; they find they are not welcome and many want to return home or move on to third countries. The U.S., despite being the prime mover of sanctions, took in just one North Korean refugee in 2017.
But, no matter, they are “Seoul’s best weapon” because they seem to confirm the demonization of North Korea and the culpability of its government in creating the economic conditions that induced them to leave. The solution therefore is to remove that government bringing its citizens under the care of Seoul. The best way to do that, so the argument goes, is to intensify sanctions. Thus, we have a vicious feedback loop whereby sanctions lead to more sanctions, and more misery.
2. The Accidental Death Myth
Where the victim is not blamed for the negative effects of sanctions, something else is. An obvious candidate in some scenarios is, of course, the weather.
In North Korea, and probably elsewhere, we have a curious, inadvertent complicity between perpetrator and victim. North Korea frequently blames the weather for agricultural problems. Clearly this can occur to some degree, and even the richest countries are susceptible to natural disasters. However, there is an important connection between infrastructure and vulnerability to bad weather, especially flood or drought. North Korea is particularly exposed because of the lack of arable land and the short growing season.
Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korean agriculture was heavily industrialized and demanded generous amounts of industrial inputs—oil for fuel and fertilizer, irrigation and mechanization allowing quick planting and harvesting (necessary because of the short growing season). Agricultural output was raised, even allowing some exportation. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, imported inputs dried up, along with spare parts for machinery, and the result was the famine of the 1990s known in North Korea as “The Arduous March.” The mechanisms for this were complex. For instance, lack of coal and electricity led to deforestation as farmers cut down trees for fuel. Lack of food led farmers to plant crops on hillsides that were too steep. Both of these practices made land susceptible to erosion in heavy rains, thus exacerbating the situation.
Since then, there has been adaptation and recovery, despite continuing U.S. sanctions, and the situation has much improved. However, as sanctions have been tightened in recent years, and especially with the introduction of UN sanctions, food security has seriously declined and malnutrition stalks the land. Professor Hazel Smith observes that:
Presumably, the North Korean government blames the weather to avoid admitting to the U.S., or perhaps to itself, just how damaging the sanctions are. This may be seen as a mixture of pride and natural warcraft—you do not let the enemy know how effective its attacks are. Iran, which also has serious environmental problems, also puts a brave face on the effect of sanctions putting emphasis on its “resistance economy.”
3. The Myth of Humanitarian Aid
Another way of diverting attention away from sanctions is to focus on “humanitarian aid”. Few articles on aid to North Korea mention sanctions, let alone their responsibility for humanitarian distress in the first place but focus rather on the generosityand benign intent of donors, including the U.S.. When sanctions have been mentioned over the last year, attention has been paid to the Trump administration’s tone-deaf blocking of official U.S. aid, and the efforts of American NGOs to supply aid. These are legitimate concerns and the administration is rightly condemned for these petty actions. However, the focus diverts attention away from the underlying issue of sanctions themselves and allows the administration to easily gain PR bonus points by easing these particular constraints while continuing the policy of “maximum pressure”; the combination of military threat and sanctions. Other than in the short term, North Korea does not need humanitarian aid but, rather, peace and the removal of sanctions and other forms of warfare against it.
4. The International Community Myth – the Suborning of the UN
One of the great triumphs of U.S. imperialism has been the yoking of the United Nations to its foreign policy. The Roosevelt administration created the UN during the last stages of the war as an institution to legitimize the coming “American century” of U.S. global hegemony. The UN was crafted at a conference in San Francisco and then transplanted to its current headquarters in New York.
The first major fall from grace, from which it has never really recovered, was its utilization in the Korean War 1950-53. The “United Nations Command” is still the fig leaf for American military presence on the Korean peninsula. U.S. dominance was eroded somewhat by China’s retrieval of its seat in the Security Council (UNSC) in 1971 and the veto of the Soviet Union was a constraint until the Soviet collapse; Russian (and Chinese) use of the veto has been sparing.
Even so the U.S. has been able to manipulate the UNSC to impose sanctions, particularly on North Korea, in obvious violation of the UN Charter; North Korea for instance is censured for launching satellites “using ballistic missile technology” although many countries have launched satellites, from the Soviet Sputnik in 1957 to New Zealand quite recently. They all use ballistic rockets which can, depending on configuration, deliver a warhead on a target or a satellite in orbit.
Similarly, North Korea has been condemned by the UNSC for its nuclear deterrent, although all the permanent members are themselves nuclear powers, and for conducting nuclear tests—six so far—while the U.S. has conducted more than 1,000 without censure. This all makes for a very impressive manipulation of an international institution to give a veneer of legality and “international community” to what is essentially the ruthless exercise of political power by the U.S..
5. The Diplomacy Myth
The use of the United Nations, the UNSC and UN agencies by the U.S. as an instrument of covert power, and the reluctance of China and Russia to challenge that, is a vital but relatively unexplored issue. It is also very topical because as American actions become more brazen and the “New Cold War” gets under way, resistance from China and Russia is on the rise, with UN sanctions on Iran and particularly on North Korea being one of the battlefields.
Many well-intentioned people are misled into seeing “diplomacy” as the opposite to war and, hence, far preferable. So we get headlines such as “Diplomacy With North Korea Has Worked Before, and Can Work Again” and “Diplomacy with North Korea: Waging Peace.” Unfortunately, this is nonsense since, in the lexicon of the U.S. government “diplomacy” is usually merely shorthand for “coercive diplomacy.” This is sometimes called “compellence” and involves a mixture of military threat and sanctions to compel a weaker adversary to yield.
Normal diplomacy involves compromise and a measure of give and take. The more diplomacy becomes “coercive”, the less the giving and the greater the taking. Thus, in current negotiations between the U.S. and the DPRK, Washington is demanding the unilateral nuclear disarmament of Pyongyang, with no suggestion of similar action by itself. Pyongyang of course demands some measure of reciprocity although, since the two sides are so unequal in power, there is no question of fairness.
Military threat can always be turned up or down; one of the ploys of the U.S. in current negotiations has been the postponement or scaling down of military exercises in order to promote “diplomacy”. It is a tribute to the power of American propaganda that the muting of aggressive threat can be portrayed as a sign of peaceful intent. Given the huge imbalance of power between North Korea and the U.S. and its allies, whose combined military budgets are hundreds of times greater, these exercises are clearly not defensive as claimed, but preparation for possible attack or invasion.
Whatever happens to military exercises, sanctions continue and this was one of the major reasons for the failure of the Hanoi Summit on February 28, 2019. Since sanctions are merely warfare by another name, this breakdown is not surprising. The malnutrition of children and premature death of the elderly, the sick deprived of medicines and the blighted lives of millions, the devastation of infrastructure and its impact on the economy – there are myriad ways in which sanctions perform the same tasks as bombs and missiles and for the same purposes.
Many people naively set great store by a Peace Declaration, thinking this will mean peace. Such a declaration, however useful as a gesture in the process of negotiations is, after all, merely a matter of words on a scrap of paper. Sanctions are real and, as long as they are in place, the real, covert war will continue.
North Korea and the Myth of Negotiations
The word “diplomacy”, or more precisely the coercive diplomacy of sanctions and threats, serves to deceive the public, who do not realize that war is being waged covertly. However, sanctions have had an additional role, particularly evident in the U.S.-DPRK negotiations of the Trump administration.
The objective here is to deceive not so much the public, as the president himself. It is commonly assumed, surely correctly, that Trump wants some sort of deal with Kim Jong Un for narcissistic reasons—that fabled Nobel peace prize which is so often awarded to war makers. However, since he has little understanding of foreign affairs and no coherent strategy except that of unpredictability and destabilization, he is easily manipulated. The prime suspect here is John Bolton, though Pompeo must also be taken into consideration
Bolton, who is reputedly an intelligent man, may fully recognize that sanctions will not compel Pyongyang to surrender, but that may not be his purpose in advocating them. We know that he is hostile to negotiations and he is probably using sanctions as a device by which to derail them.
While Bolton is often portrayed as a bête noire, it should be recognized that he is essentially part of the U.S. foreign policy establishment—a flamboyant, moustachioed caricature perhaps, but not the outlier he is branded as. A recent article in The Atlantic termed him “the shadow president of the deep state” keeping Donald Trump from straying off the path.
Tension on the Korean peninsula is an essential component of that path and specifically America’s China strategy and adherence to a forward military presence in East Asia. Despite the brouhaha—and there is an incredible amount of it—North Korea does not pose any military threat to the U.S. Its existence does pose a challenge to U.S. global hegemony, but not an existential one. The present situation serves the establishment well and any moves to a peaceful relationship with North Korea and rapprochement between the two Koreas, making the U.S. military presence untenable, will naturally be opposed. The “failure” of the Hanoi summit was surely widely greeted in establishment circles privately with relief. Ken Gause of the Navy and Marine think tank Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) sums it up:
For that reason, there is no game [possibility of a negotiated settlement]—no winner, no loser. It just “is”, until the North Korean regime collapses.
The status quo, avoiding war which would involve China or peace which would erode U.S. hegemony, is the preferred option for the establishment.
And in the meantime there are sanctions which remain a mantra in Washington, exemplified but not limited to John Bolton: “Bolton says U.S. may consider intensifying sanctions if North Korea doesn’t denuclearize.”
Sanctions imposed perhaps in the vain hope that economic distress will produce the collapse of the North Korea state, imposed perhaps as a calculated mechanism for derailing peace talks and prolonging tension in Northeast Asia, imposed perhaps because they cannot think of anything else that is risk-free yet muscular, imposed perhaps because few understand the covert but criminal consequences of sanctions.
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About the Author
About the Author
Tim Beal is a retired academic who taught on Asia and international marketing for many years at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand.
Beal has researched and written on many aspects of Asia, ranging from Korea to India. He is currently working on an extended essay on “Imperialism and Korea” for the forthcoming second edition of The Palgrave Encyclopaedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism edited by Immanuel Ness and Zak Cope.
He also maintains a website focused on Asian geopolitics.