Sovereignty for countries that experienced centuries of domination and control has been a long-cherished dream of many political leaders and citizens. Yet the very idea of sovereignty has been challenged with the growth of the increasing interdependence characteristic of the global economy. It is now difficult for any country to exercise that self-determination that was bandied around half a century ago. Certainly we accept that technological and financial changes in the last half century have ‘accelerated integration of national economies into one single global market’ reducing the capacity of the state, as non-state actors, including Trans-National Corporations, and worse, organized crime, have eroded the authority of nation states.
Political scientist, James Rosenau, contends in this era of thickened interdependence, state authority is in decline due to what he calls the ‘fragmegration’ of authority. He explains that state authority is disaggregating and migrating upwards toward international and transnational organizations, sideways toward national organizations, and downwards toward local governments and organizations, even to ‘networked individuals other than public officials [who] serve as new nodes of authority. Others refer to this as polycentrism which is viewed as antithetical to individual sovereignty.
That may well be the general order of the international community today, but there are states that have been able to maintain a level of autonomy vis-a-vis the international community as well as manage completely matters within their borders, notwithstanding global attempts to dismantle and undermine those countries. Variously called rogue states, recalcitrant states (states that flaunt international law and norms), and other less flattering terms, including criminal states exercising a form of criminal sovereignty, such states persist, but they do so at a cost that many have questioned the desirability of their governance positions. Indeed, some of us may argue that these nations are failed states given the difficulties of the government to deliver some basic goods and services to their citizens. So, the irony of sovereignty in this current period is that to achieve and maintain it, it appears that we must sacrifice other tangible goods.
I refer, for instance, to North Korea which is perhaps the world’s most sovereign state in terms of traditional notions of sovereignty. Whether we speak to the Westphalian notion, domestic sovereignty and international sovereignty, it appears that we have the very definition of a sovereign state. It seems that though there may be concerns regarding the country’s ability to exert complete control over its relationship with China, it is the best example of a sovereign state today. That sovereignty has been questioned by many who argue that at best, North Korea is representative of a form of “criminal sovereignty” (maintains the monopoly of legitimate force on the conduct of illicit activities) that is regarded as unique in the contemporary international security arena. National security experts in the United States have long argued that the country employs state sovereignty to protect itself from external interference in its domestic affairs. However, North Korea, it is also alleged, dedicates a portion of its government, namely, the Central Committee Bureau 39 (also known as Office #39) of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) to carrying out illicit international activities to sustain the country’s existence. This includes satisfying the elites, maintaining the personal life style of the political leadership and maintaining a powerful military apparatus.
Many had anticipated the demise or transitioning of the North Korean regime in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nothing could have been further from the truth and North Korea clung onto its sovereignty. Certainly, despite the international community’s frequent sanctioning of North Korea, it continues to hold steadfast to all aspects of the concept of sovereignty, as we envision it. It clearly is not the utopia that many of us dreamt about, but North Korea “enjoys” international recognition as a state. Secondly, it appears that it exercises complete control, not near complete control, over its citizens. Thirdly, North Korea holds near absolute control over the flow of information and goods across its borders, and completely rejects any external authority, whether that authority is the UN or a state actor for instance. And the US has tried for decades, with Donald Trump recently declaring that given the apparent détente with North Korea that he and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un “fell in love”. It might take love to achieve what the global community has failed to achieve in over 50 years, and whatever we may think, love is unfortunately not unconditional.
The United Nations Security Council has tried and sanctioned North Korea at least five times in the last 15 years. First in 2006 (two resolutions, 1695, 1718) after the country performed nuclear tests, again in 2009 (1874) for similar actions, resolutions 1928 and 1985 in 2010 and 2011 respectively, and again in 2013 (2087, 2094,), cause unchanged. This was followed by similar bans in 2016 (2270 and 2321), and, in 2017 (2371, 2375, 2397) which focused on trade on weapons-related materials and goods, and luxury goods in an effort to destabilize the administration by focusing on the elites rather than the military complex. Additional sanctions extended to financial assets and banking transactions, and general travel and trade. These, until recently, seemed to have been to no avail. Until 2018, North Korea has manifested little but contempt toward these sanctions. This is a clear testimony to the country’s complete rejection of external authority irrespective of the cost to its citizens in terms of social needs and the limits placed on its economy, estimated to be one of the world’s weakest.
Though North Korea has agreed to stop its missile programme, it is through the obvious repercussions to its social and economic sectors of the country’s continued “go it alone” approach, that may hold some possibility for the international community to negotiate with it. This will have obvious implications for its still now implacable approach to sovereignty issues. The human security as distinct from the traditional security concerns may yet force the country to negotiate its sovereignty however minimal; though in the current political climate in North Korea, Human Rights Agencies are strictly controlled limiting their access to the millions of people who live below the poverty line. Unlike their operations in most countries where they appear to operate with impunity, UN aid agencies operate under a tight leash in North Korea which is often self-imposed. The UN Country Team’s 2018 Needs and Priorities report, estimates that 10.3 million people (41 per cent of the population) suffer from chronic food insecurity and under-nutrition. So one of the last remaining bastions of sovereignty imagined may well disappear.
(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus)