People watch a news program showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un delivering a speech, in Seoul, South Korea, on January 1, 2015.

People watch a news program showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un delivering a speech, in Seoul, South Korea, on January 1, 2015. Ahn Young-joon/AP

Why North Korea Sanctions Are Unlikely To Be Effective

President Obama's punishment allows him to fulfill his promise to respond to the Sony hack, but probably won't have much effect on the country. By Matt Schiavenza

After the FBI announced that North Korea was behind last month's major hack of Sony as it prepared to release The Interview, President Obama vowed to carry out a proportional response (despite some experts pouring skepticism over the FBI's claim that North Korea is responsible). On Friday, the president followed through on his promise. The Obama Administration announced new economic sanctions against three North Korean organizations and ten individuals with close ties to the country's leadership. The administration acknowledged that none of the organizations or individuals are known to have participated in the Sony hack, but said that their importance to the Kim Jong Un regime made them suitable targets.

There is a long-running scholarly debate about the effectiveness of international sanctions generally. In North Korea, there are particularly high hurdles to significant results. In contrast to Russia, another country that has recently faced U.S. led sanctions, few North Korean officials travel widely or have significant assets in foreign banks. Instead, North Korea earns hard currency through the illicit sales of military technology and narcotics. The United States Treasury Department acknowledged that sanctioned North Korean organizations are likely to reconstitute under new names. Said Adam Cathcart, a Tokyo-based expert on the country, "North Korea will be able to get around the sanctions pretty easily."

The country does have one important ally on the global stage: China, which provides Pyongyang with nearly 90 percent of its energy needs and occasionally thwarts U.S.-led attempts to impose sanctions. In recent years, Beijing has grown increasingly impatient with North Korea's intransigence on the nuclear issue, and, in a pointed rebuke, President Xi Jinping has not yet met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un since the former assumed China's highest office in 2012.

But even if China's relationship with the North has chilled, it is unlikely to sympathize with the U.S. over the Sony hacks. When the New York Times uncovered evidence in early 2013 that a unit of China's People's Liberation Army conducted cyber-espionage against American interests from an unmarked building outside Shanghai, Beijing argued that the U.S. is no less guilty. (Mutual suspicion on this issue is ongoing. Last week, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham told CNN that he suspected Chinese involvement with the Sony hacks—an insinuation unlikely to please Communist Party leadership.) To the surprise of no one, Beijing dismissed Washington's request to help resolve this latest crisis with North Korea.

Sanctions do, however, serve one function: Issuing them has allowed President Obama to uphold his promise for retaliation, tidying up one of the most bizarre episodes in recent U.S-North Korea history (even as questions over the origins of the hacks remain).