On 6 July, the Obama administration introduced a new set of North Korea-related sanctions: this time, the North Korean hereditary dictator Kim Jong-un is targeted personally. Announcing the new measures, a US Treasury official said:' Under Kim Jong-un, North Korea continues to inflict intolerable cruelty and hardship on millions of its own people, including extrajudicial killings, forced labor and torture'.
It is difficult to argue against such a statement. North Korea — in spite of unnoticed but considerable liberalisation in the last two decades — remains one of the world’s most repressive societies. Kim Jong-un inherited the system from his father and grandfather but, presumably, he also has a responsibility for the 'extrajudicial killings, forced labor and torture' cited by the US.
Accepting the premise however, still leaves some questions: What is the reason behind such a rather unusual gesture? What do the US and the international community more broadly hope to achieve by classifying Kim Jong-un and a dozen other top officials of the regime as violators of human rights? [fold]
The action is clearly not driven by dreams of universal justice; after all, there are many authoritarian rulers worldwide who have not been subjected to such sanctions. There is also little chance this decision by the Obama administration will prompt Kim Jong-un change his ways: he knows that he will stay in power only as long as his subjects are docile and terrified, and he will continue to do what is necessary to keep them that way. The punishment itself is purely symbolic: the sanction means Kim Jong-un’s personal accounts are targeted, but it is an open secret that the ruling Kim family, first, does not keep their money under their real name, and, second, does not necessarily distinguish between the state and individual funds.
So it seems the only goal is to annoy Kim Jong-un who is indeed known to be surprisingly vulnerable to personal attacks from overseas. A couple of year ago North Korean watchers, for example, noticed that when accused of gross human rights violations, the North Korean authorities do not remain silent, but react nervously, with a mixture of counter-accusations and attempts to justify some of their behavior. It became clear the North Korean top leader cares about such things.
This was confirmed during a rather unusual incident that occurred in late 2014. Sony Pictures was filming a comedy that featured an assassination plot against Kim Jong-un and in which the dictator was presented as a comical buffoon. Then Sony Pictures was hit by a cyber attack, with hackers publishing a great deal of sensitive correspondence they found at the company’s computers. While never proven completely, there are good reasons to believe that the attack was carried out by North Korean hackers in retaliation for the film. Official North Korean press clearly approved the act (without admitting any responsibility).
It's seems we can be sure that, for a dictator, Kim Jong-un is unusually sensitive. Being named as one of the world's most serious abusers will not please him.
But politics is not a competition of queen bee wannabees in a high school; it is about achieving goals, not hurting the egos of people we dislike (well, unless hitting their ego helps to get things done). This decision by the US administration will be seen by Kim Jong-un and his entourage as another reminder of the hostility his regime faces. The North Korean dictator has always known (perhaps, learned from his father) that the world out there is dangerous and unfriendly, and constantly on the hunt for ways to get him. If anything, it will make him and his close associates — including those also targeted by the new sanctions — even more determined to cling to power and develop nuclear weapons which alone, he believes, protect him from going the way of Saddam and Gaddafi.
But why was it done? To an extent, this can be seen as another show of toughness, staged by the US administration. When it comes to the North Korean nuclear issue, the hard-liners rule supreme in Washington nowadays, and they believe that the show of force and toughness is necessary.
To a certain extent, however, this exercise in personal shaming also reflects a level of despair in Washington where it is increasingly clear that nothing works with North Korea. Attempts to achieve the denuclearization through compromise ended in nothing. Now the major hope is international sanctions, but these sanctions could succeed only with the full-scale and sincere participation of China which looks increasingly unlikely (and even with the full Chinese support, the efficiency of the sanctions is doubtful). Thus, one should not surprised that, out of despair, the US government has resorted to a symbolic gesture that might look impressive, but whose effectiveness is doubtful at best.
Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images