The first pathetic pieces of wreckage from North Korean fishing boats known as “ghost ships” to be found this year are washing up on the coast of northern Japan. These are the storm-battered remains of fragile wooden boats with unreliable engines in which North Korean fishermen go far out to sea in the middle of winter in a desperate search for fish.
Often all that survives is the shattered wooden hull of the boat cast up on the shore, but in some cases the Japanese find the bodies of fishermen who died of hunger and thirst as they drifted across the Sea of Japan. Occasionally, a few famished survivors are alive and explain that their engine failed or they ran out of fuel or they were victims of some other fatal mishap.
The number of “ghost ships” is rising with no fewer than 104 found in 2017, which is more than in any previous year, though the real figure must be higher because many boats will have sunk without trace in the 600 miles of rough sea between North Korea and Japan.
The reason so many fishermen risk and lose their lives is hunger in North Korea, where fish is the cheapest form of protein. The government imposes quotas for fishermen that force them to go far out to sea. Part of their catch is then sold on to China for cash, making fish one of the biggest of North Korea’s few export items.
The fact that North Korean fishermen took greater risks and died in greater numbers last year is evidence that international sanctions imposed on North Korea are, in a certain sense, a success: the country is clearly under severe economic pressure. But, as with sanctions elsewhere in the world past and present, the pressure is not on the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who looks particularly plump and well-fed, but on the poor and the powerless.
The record of economic sanctions in forcing political change is dismal, but as a way of reducing a country to poverty and misery it is difficult to beat. UN sanctions were imposed against Iraq from 1990 until 2003. Supposedly, it was directed against Saddam Hussein and his regime, though it did nothing to dislodge or weaken them: on the contrary, the Baathist political elite took advantage of the scarcity of various items to enrich themselves by becoming the sole suppliers. Saddam’s odious elder son Uday made vast profits by controlling the import of cigarettes into Iraq.
The bureaucrats in charge of UN sanctions in Iraq always pretended that they prevented Saddam rebuilding his military strength. This was always a hypocritical lie: the Iraqi army did not fight for him in 1991 at the beginning of sanctions any more than it did when they ended. It was absurd to imagine that dictators like Kim Jong-un or Saddam Hussein would be influenced by the sufferings of their people.
These are very real: I used to visit Iraqi hospitals in the 1990s where the oxygen had run out and there were no tyres for the ambulances. Once, I was pursued across a field in Diyala province north of Baghdad by local farmers holding up dusty X-rays of their children because they thought I might be a visiting foreign doctor.
Saddam Hussein and his senior lieutenants were rightly executed for their crimes, but the foreign politicians and officials who were responsible for the sanctions regime that killed so many deserved to stand beside them in the dock. It is time that the imposition of economic sanctions should be seen as a war crime, since it involves the collective punishment of millions of innocent civilians who die, sicken or are reduced to living off scraps from the garbage dumps.
There is nothing very new in this. Economic sanctions are like a medieval siege but with a modern PR apparatus attached to justify what is being done. A difference is that such sieges used to be directed at starving out a single town or city while now they are aimed at squeezing whole countries into submission.
An attraction for politicians is that sanctions can be sold to the public, though of course not to people at the receiving end, as more humane than military action. There is usually a pretence that foodstuffs and medical equipment are being allowed through freely and no mention is made of the financial and other regulatory obstacles making it impossible to deliver them.
An example of this is the draconian sanctions imposed on Syria by the US and EU which were meant to target President Bashar al-Assad and help remove him from power. They have wholly failed to do this, but a UN internal report leaked in 2016 shows all too convincingly the effect of the embargo in stopping the delivery of aid by international aid agencies. They cannot import the aid despite waivers because banks and commercial companies dare not risk being penalised for having anything to do with Syria. The report quotes a European doctor working in Syria as saying that “the indirect effect of sanctions … makes the import of the medical instruments and other medical supplies immensely difficult, near impossible.”
People should be just as outraged by the impact of this sort of thing as they are by the destruction of hospitals by bombing and artillery fire. But the picture of X-ray or kidney dialysis machines lacking essential spare parts is never going to compete for impact with film of dead and wounded on the front line. And those who die because medical equipment has been disabled by sanctions are likely to do so undramatically and out of sight.
Embargoes are dull and war is exciting. A few failed rocket strikes against Riyadh by the Houthi forces in Yemen was heavily publicised, though no Saudis were killed. Compare this to the scant coverage of the Saudi embargo on Houthi-held Yemen which has helped cause the largest man-made famine in recent history. In addition, there are over one million cholera cases suspected and 2,000 Yemenis have died from the illness according to the World Health Organisation.
PR gambits justifying sanctions are often the same regardless of circumstances. One is to claim that the economic damage caused prevents those who are targeted spending money on guns and terror. President Trump denounces the nuclear deal with Iran on the grounds that it frees up money to finance Iranian foreign ventures, though the cost of these is small and, in Iraq, Iranian activities probably make a profit.
Sanctions are just as much a collective punishment as area bombing in East Aleppo, Raqqa and Mosul. They may even kill more people than the bombs and shells because they go on for years and their effect is cumulative. The death of so many North Korean fishermen in their unseaworthy wooden craft is one side effect of sanctions but not atypical of their toxic impact. As usual, they are hitting the wrong target and they are not succeeding against Kim Jong-un any more than they did against Saddam Hussein.