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Economics sanctions come with risks

Embargoes such as those against North Korea have limited success, experts say, and they can backfire.

Published October 15, 2006

It's a blunt tool that has been around for centuries: the economic embargo.

The latest target is North Korea in the wake of its suspected underground testing of a nuclear device.

A day after the U.N. Security Council approved stringent sanctions against North Korea on everything from luxury goods to military technology, it's worth asking: Just how effective is this diplomatic cudgel?

Abundant literature and comparative studies on past embargoes - from the "Continental Blockade" against Britain by French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to more contemporary sanctions against South Africa, Libya, and Cuba - have taught certain clear lessons, say experts.

"You can get countries to modify certain aspects of their behavior, but you can't get them to change their fundamental policy goals," said Dan Erikson, senior associate for U.S. policy at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C., a forum on foreign policy analysis in this hemisphere.

Lesson No. 1, experts say, is the need for international consensus. Even then, chances of success are slim - and don't expect overnight victory.

With the possible exceptions of South Africa and Libya, which did give in to fundamental policy changes - albeit after almost two decades of sanctions - the success rate of embargoes is not impressive. Indeed, they can often have disastrous unintended consequences.

Napoleon's effort to starve Britain into submission by prohibiting its allies from trading with the island eventually led to the collapse of his own empire. When Britain tried to retaliate by banning trade between France and America, it plunged London into another war with the young United States.

North Korea has already faced U.S. economic sanctions, including an arms embargo, for more than 50 years - since it invaded South Korea. Sanctions against commercial goods and financial transactions were softened by the Clinton administration in 1999.

The current debate over North Korea began Oct. 9 when Pyongyang claimed it had conducted its first nuclear test. Tests for airborne radioactivity raised questions Friday about whether North Korea's test was successful, but condemnation remains intense and widespread.

Japan has gone ahead already with unilateral sanctions banning all North Korean imports and prohibiting North Korean ships from entering Japanese ports.

But China, North Korea's principal ally, and Russia balked at any sanctions that would include boarding North Korean ships, an act the countries feared might provoke a military response from the North.

U.S. officials say they are most concerned about North Korea's nuclear capability being passed on to other states hostile to the United States. Bringing down the Kim Jong Il regime with financial punishment could result in nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands, officials say.

North Korea's government warned it will carry out more tests if the United States steps up pressure and said increased sanctions would be considered "a declaration of war."

On the other hand, the communist nation continues to seek bilateral talks with the United States, an option Washington rejects.

Some critics say the Bush administration's use of sanctions might not be the right option in this case.

"It has a tool box of solutions which it applies, without much analysis, to every problem," said former Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat.

"Each problem has its own peculiarities and needs to have a fashioned response."

After more than four decades of sanctions against Cuba, the only threat to Fidel Castro's grip on power seems to be his failing health. The U.S. embargo has been systematically shot to pieces by foreign governments, including U.S. allies, which continue to trade with Cuba. A yearly vote at the United Nations has consistently condemned the Cuba embargo.

"For sanctions to work there has to be international consensus," said Joe Garcia, a Cuban-American exile activist. "If you don't have that, it becomes a moral, symbolic thing."

While embargoes can have a tremendous effect on the economic life of a country, they tend to be more effective in developed countries with globally integrated economies vulnerable to international pressure. In already impoverished countries such as North Korea, it is generally the poor who bear the brunt of sanctions.

Garcia said the lesson to be learned from Cuba was that totalitarian regimes tend to have small elites better able to protect themselves from hardship.

North Korea was similar, he said.

"No matter what we do economically, Kim Jong Il will still get three square meals a day," he said.

Asked why luxury goods have been banned, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton said, "I think the North Korean population has been losing average height and weight over the years and maybe this will be a little diet for Kim Jong Il."

Ironically, the most successful embargo was perhaps against South Africa's apartheid regime, despite limited support from Britain and the United States. South Africa's large middle class population made it especially vulnerable to sanctions. Its national sporting prowess made a sports boycott even harder to bear.

The United States imposed sanctions on Libya in 1986, accusing it of sponsoring terrorism. International support rose after evidence linked Libya to the downing of a Pan Am 747 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 270 on board. Sanctions were lifted in 2004 after Moammar Gadhafi gave up a program to develop weapons of mass destruction.

A decadelong U.S. embargo in the 1980s against Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista Front did not have international support. Regime change came only after Washington ended its controversial backing for the rebel Contras and voters threw out Sandinista president Daniel Ortega.

Embargoes require strong moral and political justification to win international support. The U.S. embargo against Cuba is largely seen overseas as an instrument of U.S. domestic policy to win votes, and campaign contributions from Cuban exile voters in South Florida.

"It doesn't touch a very important nerve in U.S. national security considerations," said Joaquin Roy, a University of Miami professor who has studied the international implications of the Cuba embargo. Therefore, in Europe it is considered "politically affordable" to oppose it.

In the absence of international support, embargoes can prove to be counterproductive, as in Cuba's case.

"Instead of causing the collapse of the regime it has encountered worldwide opposition and provided Castro with a political excuse to justify his regime's economic shortcomings," Roy said.

Even when sanctions are imposed internationally, there are always loopholes, or criminals seeking to find ways around the law.

A three-year embargo against Haiti's de facto military regime from 1991-94 did have U.N. backing. Even so it failed to bring down Gen. Raoul Cedras, in part because of smuggling across a leaky border with the Dominican Republic. Cedras capitulated only after the United States threatened to invade.

A U.N. oil-for-food program in Iraq designed to limit Iraq's revenue from oil under Saddam Hussein, ended up becoming a vehicle for self-enrichment by officials running it.

"Greed trumps virtues," said John Kavulich, a senior policy adviser with the U.S. Cuba Trade and Economic Council. "There's always going to be those who see opportunity where others see morality."

David Adams can be reached at or 305 361-6393.

[Last modified October 15, 2006, 01:57:03]

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