Issue Brief: North Korea

June 6, 2017

Current Situation

North Korea has advanced greatly in its conventional and nuclear weapons programmes since it walked out of the Six Party Talks in 2009. At that time, the principal threat was perhaps an indirect one – the military capabilities that North Korea was prepared to export to countries such as Iran and Syria.. Several nuclear and ballistic missile tests later, to say nothing of Kim Jong Un’s stated intention to be able to threaten the US mainland directly, the greater threat is North Korea itself rather than its client states.

International sanctions have attempted to hamper North Korean progress towards its stated aim of a deliverable Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) capability. North Korea is isolated and has scant assistance from other states for the development its nuclear or ballistic programmes. However, despite UN sanctions being progressively tightened since 2006, ongoing nuclear and missile tests clearly show that North Korea is still making progress in its WMD development. This suggests that it is the implementation and enforcement of sanctions, rather than their scope, that is the main limiting factor in their effectiveness. This situation is magnified by the lack of a clear international strategy on DPRK issues and unstable relations between Russia and the U.S., as well as poor communication between the U.S. and China.

Despite the sanctions, North Korea imports and exports dual-use materials, equipment and technology that it uses for its military programmes. It exports military-related technology and goods to customers along with trading in domestic products to help fund the regime and its programmes. However, the international sanctions mean that North Korea is constantly forced to find new alternatives and secret paths to procurement, including through transport, logistics, administration and financing.

North Korea differs in its methods to procure conventional or nuclear technology. Conventional weapon systems are often traded or procured with the help of the usual dubious transporters. International monitoring of North Korea, including by intelligence agencies through SIGINT, RADINT, satellite, drone and reconnaissance aircraft, means that illicit trade for proliferation purposes and heavy weapons is more difficult than for the nuclear programme. Worryingly, the regime appears to have developed indigenous production capabilities for many key items making it less reliant on the import of such technology for the development of its nuclear programme.

The overall implication of this is that sanctions are unlikely to stop North Korea’s nuclear program either through the denial of key technologies or through changing the regime’s calculus.

Current Restrictions

The United Nations has imposed sanctions on North Korea since its first nuclear test in 2006. UN Security Council resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), 2094 (2013), 2270 (2016) and 2321 (2016) were passed with the desired effect of having North Korea cease its nuclear testing and weapons development. The resolutions prohibit the export of many kinds of items such as military supplies and related goods, arms, energy exports, and luxury goods. The resolutions also impose sanctions on money transfers and financial transactions and allow UN Member States to conduct activities such as the inspection of ships and cargo suspected of being related to the North Korea nuclear weapons programme.

Many countries have in place their own sanctions framework implementing UN sanctions and in some cases going beyond them. The EU has transposed the UN resolutions into its restrictive measure legislation. The EU also implements so-called ‘autonomous’ measures targeting North Korea’s nuclear weapons and nuclear programmes and other WMD and ballistic missile programmes, including prohibitions on the trade of arms, goods, services and technology that could contribute to these programmes.

The U.S. implements sanctions against North Korea through North Korean Sanctions Regulations implemented by the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the Department of State and the Department of Commerce. All goods and services, with the exception of certain food and medicines, require a license for export or re-export.

South Korea has measures in place that ban North Korean ships from entering South Korean territorial waters and has banned most trade and cultural exchanges. Japan has banned remittances coming from North Korea, froze assets of suspect North Korea individuals in Japan, and imposed a travel ban on all North Koreans from entering Japan.

Risks and Limitations

There are several points of vulnerability in the current international policy towards North Korea, contributing to its ability to procure illicit components for its conventional and WMD weapons programmes.

First, international sanctions largely focus on North Korea-based entities, rather than on overseas-based procurement networks. Sanctioned North Korean organisations tend not to be directly involved or named in procurement channels. Therefore, it is only by identifying and naming those parts of the network that interact with the supply chain that counter-procurement can be effective.

In addition, there is a poor understanding on behalf of governments and private enterprises regarding how purchases for North Korean military programmes are funded. Despite sanctions specifically aimed at preventing proliferation finance, North Korea still appears able to utilise the international banking system for procurement activities.

The humanitarian exemption clauses central to sanctions policy are potentially exploited by North Korea to ensure viability of military programmes, even at the expense of greater civilian hardships.

The porous land border with China, and to a lesser extent the land border with Russia, may allow for trafficking and proliferation routes that have not been subject to full investigation. Whatever measures countries such as Japan, the U.S. and EU Member States might take to prevent exports to North Korea, it is clear that a significant level of cross-border traffic is tolerated by both the Chinese and the North Korean side. It is unclear how much autonomy local Chinese Customs and border officials have, but this cross-border trade can certainly be seen as consistent with perceived Chinese foreign policy priorities, which would seek to avert a humanitarian crisis in the northern region of North Korea.

A further limiting factor must be the international community’s generally poor understanding of the organisations and programmes subject to sanctions. Despite contributions from many UN Member States to sanctions listings, or to Panel of Experts reports, the international community still struggles for data on North Korean WMD programmes, proliferation and procurement in just about all areas: the status of programmes, personnel, facilities, and procurement networks. Hardly surprising, for a country that has been closed and secretive for decades, that has all-but-total control over information, and that takes great pains to conceal activities it knows are subject to scrutiny. This has led to the world being taken by surprise – as it was when North Korean assistance to the construction of a suspected nuclear reactor at Al Kibar in Syria became clear in 2008, and more recently when the assassination of Kim Jong Nam in February 2017 revealed North Korea’s hitherto unknown (though long suspected) capability to manufacture and handle VX nerve agent.

Policy Options

These limitations can be addressed on the one hand by engagement above all with China. Greater enforcement of sanctions at the land border offers the greatest scope for improved effectiveness of sanctions – arguably they cannot succeed without. But the rest of the world needs to acknowledge China’s concerns – clamping down on cross-border trade is a risk to the stability of that region.

On a more general level, the international community currently lacks strategies other than continuing the policy of sanctions. Even if sanctions have been effective at curbing military exports from North Korea, the questions must now be whether they can be effective against imports – i.e. slowing North Korea’s progress towards a deliverable nuclear weapon, and effective more generally in imposing pressures on the Kim regime. Here, China’s agreement is key – sanctions could not be allowed to instigate the regime’s collapse with the corresponding implications of a refugee crisis and potential Korean reunification, which could see US forces become entrenched in the North of the peninsula at China’s border. Sanctions alone, then, look unlikely to be effective. Sanctions as part of a wider strategy may still be useful.

The strategy of negotiation is and has been attempted. In the 1990s an agreement was reached under the so-called Agreed Framework to ensure that North Korea remained nuclear weapons free. However, both North Korea and the US Congress reneged on the deal. For negotiations to resume today, it would likely have to be in recognition of both this context and the fact that North Korea now has nuclear weapons as well as a credible means to launch them at other countries in the region, if not the United States mainland. Given that the goal of the United States would likely be to ensure the elimination of nuclear weapons from the peninsula and the goal of North Korea would likely be to achieve recognition of its nuclear weapons status, its simply not clear whether negotiations could achieve common ground – or even if the countries would be willing to enter into negotiations without the other’s objectives being recognised.

The alternative approach of using military force to address the North Korea nuclear issue is also problematic. There are many reasons for this. China would not look kindly on US use of force within its sphere of influence. The location of some of North Korea’s nuclear facilities (or the fact that North Korea had a mature uranium enrichment capability) has been unknown to western intelligence agencies, meaning that there was little prospect of targeting all nuclear infrastructure without a full-on invasion. Even without nuclear weapons, North Korea also poses a substantial military threat to US allies in the region – in particular to South Korea. However, now with a credible nuclear arsenal, it is becoming unthinkable that anyone would attack North Korea for fear of nuclear retaliation.

In the context of this lack of options, the default strategy – known as strategic patience – has been to wait out North Korea while trying to contain it through the use of sanctions and the placement of military assets, including missile defence. However, even this strategy has been ineffective as North Korea has largely been able to evade the sanctions and no one yet (or perhaps ever) has confidence that missile defences could shoot down any North Korean nuclear-armed missiles.

In view of this, China should play a significant role in any international strategy on North Korea by, for example, improving the implementation of sanctions. Project Alpha’s research has found hundreds of suspected north Korean entities operating in China’s border region with North Korea – often with little or no supervision from Chinese authorities. Tougher enforcement could choke off critical items as well as North Korea’s sales of military equipment, which are thought to finance the country’s programs. In addition, the international community can work with China to exert diplomatic pressure on North Korea. In the immediate term, this can be leveraged to put pressure on North Korea to cease testing nuclear weapons and missiles.

Ultimately, however, a broader strategy is required that addresses the Korean nuclear issue in a sustainable way. Realistically, this can only be achieved if the security challenges as perceived by North Korea are also addressed. This would ultimately require negotiations and, in an appropriate and step by step way, a mutual easing of military exercises and capabilities. It remains unclear whether the Trump administration can craft and implement such a nuanced policy.

Project Alpha’s Contribution

Underpinning any improved enforcement of sanctions must be the enhancement of the information and intelligence picture. Project Alpha continues to produce a great deal of research on North Korea, including:

Ample scope remains for more such detailed and granular information on procurement networks, transportation arrangements, and banking facilities that can assist effective enforcement of sanctions.

In addition, Project Alpha supports the implementation sanctions on North Korea with events, training staff from international organizations. Finally, the project provides capacity-building to states through the EU Partner-to-Partner (EU P2P) programme on dual-use export control. These activities play an important role in contributing to building capacity worldwide and bolstering the success of the North Korean sanctions framework.


Improving the implementation of non-proliferation controls