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Assessing the Risk of Regime Change in North Korea

16 December 2016

paul-stares-coverNorth Korea watchers are going to be scrutinizing the country very closely in the coming months for any sign that the ruling Kim Jong Un regime is feeling the effects of new and tougher financial sanctions and trade restrictions. The hope is that this pressure will chasten the North Korean leadership and force it to curb its provocative behavior and return to the negotiating table to discuss meaningful limits on its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The likelihood of this happening is hard to gauge. What does seem certain, however, is that if North Korea maintains its belligerent posture and continues to not only menace America’s regional allies but also pose a direct threat to US national security, pressure will grow for even more punitive action, including measures designed to actively undermine the Kim regime.

In anticipation that policy toward North Korea will become a topic for growing debate in the United States, especially as the next administration begins to review US options, this paper explores important questions about the prospects for regime change and its putative benefits. How might it occur, and what seems to be the most likely scenario? Can external pressure and other actions promote such change? What are the potential consequences and results? Can we assume that the preferred outcomes will be realized?

Download the report “Assessing the Risk of Regime Change in North Korea,” by Paul B. Stares

Find other papers in The North Korea Instability Project series.

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3 Responses to “Assessing the Risk of Regime Change in North Korea”

  1. John says:

    Thanks to Mr. Abt for the rich evidence on the
    counterproductive effects of sanctions!

    It is also to be noted that sanctions-driven foreign policy is, in fact, un-American
    since it goes against the original foreign policy of our founding father,
    George Washington.

    In the new year, as we develop a new policy for Korea, we should pay more attention to the wise counsel of Washington, which was provided in his farewell address in 1796: “Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest.”

  2. Georgy says:

    Sanctions in fact consolidate elite’s support for the regime. And population’s suffering do not affect the decision-making process in NK.

  3. Felix Abt says:

    The actual purpose of sanctions is to make the people (which are first and foremost hurt by them, not the elites) rise against the government. Whether this weapon used by North Korea’s foes, trying to get rid of its regime, works remains to be seen.

    But what exactly do sanctions do to normal people and how is a cornered regime reacting to them?

    This paper published by the Stanford University long before the strangulating sanctions were imposed, demonstrates that “economic sanctions deteriorate the well-being of North Korea’s marginalized population in the hinterland,” not the elites:

    Reed Wood, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, argues that “sanctions exacerbate internal repression.” His research – Ref.: – suggests that “regimes increase oppression to ensure stability when decreased government resources threaten to embolden the opposition.” Additionally, he explains, “sanctions have the potential to create a ‘rally around the flag’ effect if a targeted nation successfully shifts the blame towards the U.S.”

    The findings of another, larger study – Ref.: – “utilizing time-series, cross-national data for the period 1981—2000″ suggested that “economic sanctions worsen government respect for physical integrity rights, including freedom from disappearances, extra-judicial killings, torture, and political imprisonment.”

    The study concludes that “economic coercion remains a counterproductive policy tool, even when sanctions are specifically imposed with the goal of improving human rights.”

    The history of sanctions clearly shows that they don’t hurt the targeted elites but ordinary people which may even get starved to death. Saddam Hussein was not toppled by U.N. sanctions. They could not even prevent his sons from living a lavish life but this study explains that the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization attributed the death of up to 560.000 Iraqi children to U.N. sanctions. – Ref.:

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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.