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Authoritarian Regimes and Economic Sanction Effectiveness: The Case of North Korea
Region: Asia
Location: Korea, North
Published June 21, 2016
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North Korea has been under several rounds of economic sanctions since the beginning of the Korean War in 1950. Economic coercion, however, has had no major effect on the Kim regime’s political stability and nuclear program. Drawing from the literature on the survival of authoritarian regimes and sanction effectiveness, this article focuses on key domestic policies the regime has employed to survive foreign pressure. I posit that Pyongyang has been able to remain defiant against foreign pressure through the use of two main domestic strategies: positive inducements and repression. I specifically argue that the North Korean regime has evaded the negative effects of sanctions by offering selective rewards to the small ruling coalition in exchange for loyalty and quelling opposition through the total surveillance of society and efficient institutions of repression. The analysis suggests that neither comprehensive economic sanctions targeting the entire economy nor selective sanctions aiming at the ruling elites have been fully successful in achieving the ambitious goals of regime change and denuclearization in North Korea. Extensive sanctions might have even done more harm than good by further worsening the dire living conditions of ordinary citizens. The U.S. and other major sanctioning countries should have instead sought alternative policies to empower average citizens to create a strong domestic opposition pushing for political liberalization and other reforms. Selective sanctions targeting the regime’s nuclear and military capabilities could still be useful to slow down the development of advanced nuclear weapons and contain aggressive state behavior.

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