Effectiveness of North Korea Sanctions

Since North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2002, the United States and United Nations have sought to negotiate an end to the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) nuclear and missile development programs, without success. The United Nations (U.N.) and the United States continued to pass sanctions this year in an attempt to pressure the Kim Jong-Un regime. North Korea, with help from countries including China, Russia and Iran, continues to disregard U.N. and U.S. sanctions to pursue its nuclear program. Until sanctions are stringently and universally applied by all U.N. member states, sanctions will continue to fail.

On November 29th, North Korea announced it is now a nuclear state capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to anywhere in the United States, after test-launching a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from Sain Ni, North Korea, into Japan’s Economic Exclusion Zone, a distance of about 1,000 km and height of 4,475 km, before the missile splashed down in the sea. This was the first missile launch in 10 weeks, and demonstrated a greater range than previous DPRK missiles. While the prior silence had been seen as a positive sign, it is likely the break from weapons testing was due to other priorities, including the need to use military personnel to conduct the fall harvest and ongoing military training.  In response to the latest launch, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held a meeting and the U.S. asked China to cut off oil to North Korea and asked the U.N. to cut off North Korea’s voting rights in the U.N.

On November 20th, President Trump re-designated North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. President Trump has accused North Korea of threatening the world by nuclear devastation and repeatedly supporting acts of international terrorism including assassinations on foreign soil. President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson both cited February’s assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of the leader Kim Jong-Un, as among their reasons for re-designating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. North Korea was placed on the state sponsor of terrorism list in 1988 and former President George W. Bush removed North Korea from the list in 2008 as part of negotiations on the North’s nuclear program.

The U.S. Treasury Department released its latest sanctions on North Korea on November 21st, a day after Trump put North Korea on the state sponsor list. The U.S. imposed sanctions on one Chinese individual, 13 Chinese and North Korean organizations, and 20 North Korean vessels, in an attempt to further pressure North Korea and disrupt its nuclear and missile program. The designations were issued under Executive Orders 13810 and 13722, and include companies that have engaged in trade with North Korea and shipping and transportation companies, and their vessels, that facilitate North Korea’s trade.

During this year, the UNSC has passed two resolutions while the U.S. has unilaterally passed one executive order and eight rounds of sanctions against the North Korean regime to force an end its nuclear program. When deployed strategically and with precision, sanctions are a highly effective way of pressuring regimes, such as North Korea, to change their behavior. These regimes rely on funding to operate and to carry out their activities, and sanctions are high impact. When the U.S. freezes the assets of illicit actors, cutting them off from the U.S. financial system, and restricting their ability to use the international financial system, it leaves the country the choices of modifying their behavior or accept the isolation of sanctions.

The U.N. and U.S. sanctions were imposed in response to the missile and nuclear tests that North Korea has carried out. North Korea has carried out 16 missile tests this year, and the November 29th missile test was the first once since September 15th. The September 15th test was the second missile fired over Japan and it flew higher and farther than the first one on August 29th, travelling 3,700km before landing in the sea. North Korea carried out its sixth nuclear test on September 3rd, which North Korea claimed to be a hydrogen bomb or H-bomb and caused a 6.3 magnitude earthquake near the nuclear test site. UNSC resolutions 2371 and 2375 were both passed unanimously in response to North Korea’s missile tests in July and nuclear test in September. Resolution 2371, passed on August 5th, introduced a full ban on coal, iron and iron ore, and seafood. Resolution 2375, passed on September 11th, introduced a full ban on North Korean textile exports, set a cap on oil imports, attempts to suppress smuggling efforts by allowing inspections, and prevents overseas workers from earning wages that finance the North Korean regime.

President Trump signed Executive Order 13810 on September 21st, enabling the Treasury Department to target anyone conducting significant trade in goods, services, or technology with North Korea, and to ban them from interacting with the U.S. financial system. It also allows the Treasury to block and freeze assets of actors supporting North Korea’s textiles, fishing, and manufacturing industries. Shortly after E.O. 13810 was passed, the Treasury Department designated 8 North Korean banks and 26 individuals linked to North Korean financial networks to further disrupt North Korea’s access to the international financial system. In October, the Treasury Dept. passed additional sanctions on 7 individuals and 3 entities of the North Korean regime in response to the regime’s human rights abuses. Since the beginning of 2017, the U.S. sanctions have added 63 individuals and 49 entities to its Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List (SDN List).

Although these U.N. and U.S. sanctions continue to be the strongest sanctions imposed on North Korea, they have so far failed to stop North Korea’s nuclear and missile program. None of the sanctions the U.N. has imposed on North Korea since 2006 have been successful, largely because the North Korean regime believes a nuclear arsenal is a necessary protection from regime change and is the way to fulfill its objective of a unified Korean peninsula, and therefore sanctions have a limited impact. U.S. sanctions have also failed in part because they are affecting North Korean civilians rather than Kim Jong-Un and his elite. This is likely the case in the ban on textile exports, affecting ordinary workers and their ability to make a livelihood. If China were to completely cut off oil exports to North Korea, it would likely cut its nonmilitary use of oil substantially to ensure that the military felt no immediate effects.

North Korea is able to evade U.S. and U.N. sanctions by trading with countries who disregard the U.N. sanctions, with China being the primary actor in this illicit trade. China is one of North Korea’s biggest trading partners, accounting for 90 percent of North Korea’s trade in 2016. While China reported no imports of coal, lead, iron, lead, aluminum, zinc or copper during October, it is still trading exports of fuel, wheat, corn, soy oil, palm oil, rice, cotton, rubber and stainless steel, and imports of fertilizer, log and steel. In the past month, China’s overall exports to North Korea fell 16 percent compared to a year ago, and imports fell 62 percent but as seen by North Korea’s latest missile test, this change is not impacting the regime enough.

China has kept the U.N. from exerting too much pressure on North Korea, while the U.S. continues to encourage China to step up and stop North Korea. When passing UNSCR 2371, the U.S. wanted a complete ban on oil imports into North Korea and to impose a travel ban and asset freeze on Kim Jong-Un, the Worker’s Party and the government of North Korea. Russia and China were both against these demands claiming it might destabilize Pyongyang and lead to refugees crossing North Korea’s border into China.

While sharing a goal of denuclearizing North Korea, the U.S. and China have different views on how to reach it. While China would prefer a denuclearized North Korea, its biggest fear is a regime collapse. The U.S. has regularly called on China to stop North Korea’s nuclear program by completely cutting off North Korea and exert its influence over the country. China on the other hand, believes that it is up to the U.S. to solve the crisis by the “freeze for freeze” proposal in which North Korea would halt its missile and nuclear programs in exchange for the United States and South Korea suspending their joint military exercises. Despite that China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and does exert influence over North Korea, putting all responsibility onto China is a flawed strategy. The U.S. has incorrectly relied on China before, in the 1970s, when the U.S. and North Korea were trying to form a peace agreement. North Korea in the mid-1970s, spoke in favor of a peace treaty to replace the armistice. Rather than attempt to speak directly with North Korea, the U.S. looked to China and its influence over North Korea, failing to take into account the historical relationship between the countries. While China fought with North Korea during the Korean War in the 1950s against the U.S., and has kept economic ties since, the relationship between the two countries has been unsteady. Strains between China and North Korea have increased in recent years over North Korea’s nuclear testing and China’s growing interest in a close relationship with South Korea.

For a peaceful path to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, sanctions are the best option, but only if every country complies with them and cuts off all ties with North Korea, including diplomatic relations. While a few months has not been long enough for the sanctions to affect North Korea, it is more likely that the sanctions would have a greater and quicker effect if they were fully implemented. While it may take a long time before sanctions start to affect North Korea, there is the problem that the longer sanctions are in place, the less likely they are to be effective, as North Korea will start to adapt to its new economic circumstances instead of changing its behavior. There is also the problem that if these sanctions aren’t affecting North Korea fully, it will still be able to pursue its nuclear program and continue to improve its weapons and threats to the U.S. The U.S. has debated cutting off trade with any country that continues to trade with North Korea. Yet several countries which trade with North Korea are major U.S. trading partners, most especially China, and there could be a significant impact on the global economy, should these countries be cut off from U.S. markets. Implementing more sanctions is seen as the next step by the U.S., but until the ones already created are fully implemented, any new sanctions will have minimal effect on the country.

If sanctions are likely to be ineffective, there are limited military options the U.S. could use to exert pressure on North Korea. Possible initial action could include declaring North Korean airspace as a missile no-fly zone and a nuclear weapons no-test zone. The U.S. could stop any attempt by North Korea to launch a ballistic missile with a targeted military strike and stop any attempt to test a nuclear weapon with a targeted strike taking out the test site and other related nuclear facilities. Other initial military action could include a naval blockade and stopping and searching North Korean ships at sea for any weapons materials but also any goods that are banned under U.N. sanctions. While it is possible more aggressive military action could result in some form of retaliation from North Korea, limited military action is a potential option to take to exert additional pressure on North Korea, if sanctions efforts remain ineffective.