Assessing UN Trade Sanctions on North Korea

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Proliferation Analysis
The UN Security Council report published last week documents North Korea's efforts in setting up a large-scale uranium enrichment plant after sanctions were first imposed five years ago.
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The United Nations recently published a report prepared by a panel of experts that evaluates the implementation of the UN Security Council sanctions that were leveled against North Korea following Pyongyang’s nuclear explosives tests in 2006 and 2009. The June 29 report makes clear that in cases where the international community acts with resolution and unity, some efforts to contain North Korea’s weapons-related trade may succeed. However, the report also reveals that without firm commitments by North Korea’s trading partners, the effectiveness of sanctions will be limited.

Good News and Bad News

The UNSC report provides evidence that sanctions have made it more difficult on margin for North Korea to export weapons and to import the items it needs to continue development of weapons of mass destruction. That’s in part because UN member states have increased their surveillance of North Korea’s shipping fleet. Today, more than ever before, the number and whereabouts of North Korean vessels is understood and tracked in real time, assisting efforts to interdict suspicious cargo.

That’s the good news. But the bad news is that North Korea is responding to the increased vigilance over its maritime fleet by resorting to other means to feed its military-driven procurement programs. In particular, it now relies on air cargo transport, the transshipment of goods using foreign-flagged carriers, brokers operating in third countries, and the use of legitimate commerce to hide nefarious transactions.

At the same time, and as if this were not enough, UN member states are struggling to enforce a sanctions regime on North Korea as that country’s foreign trade is on the rise. Reports from UNSC experts in 2010 showed that North Korea’s exports had increased from just over $1 billion at the beginning of last decade to $2.8 billion in 2008. The state’s imports also more than doubled during the same period, from $1.8 billion to $4.1 billion. The new UNSC report elaborates that, in parallel, North Korea is expanding its port facilities, is setting up new joint ventures and free-trade areas, and has embarked on fresh bilateral trade development initiatives with China and Russia.

China Is Still Key…But All UN Members Must Help

As was the case before UNSC sanctions were imposed on Pyongyang, China is by far North Korea’s biggest trading partner. China’s exports to North Korea have grown from about $300 million during the early 1990s to over $2 billion today, so Beijing’s responsibility for the success or failure of sanctions against North Korea is great. China has halted significant exports to Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs, but its approach to sanctions is minimalistic and informed by Beijing’s interest in maintaining something like the political status quo in Northeast Asia.

So it should not surprise Beijing that the international community wants China to do more to make sure that North Korea does not find illicit trade partners in the People’s Republic.

The measures needed to improve sanctions compliance are not unique to China, but rather they should be implemented by all UN member states—especially by North Korea’s other transit and trading partners in the Asia-Pacific region. These measures include greater vetting of transit trade in third countries; improved intelligence cooperation to interdict goods; outreach from the United States and other resource-rich states to countries trading with North Korea, particularly on trade financing, money laundering, and North Korean efforts to recruit and train foreigners; and cooperation in monitoring and interdicting air cargo. The measures should also include greater direct cooperation between the UN’s broader membership and the UNSC. The Security Council’s resolutions require that UN members report violations to the UNSC, but none concerning Pyongyang’s weapons of mass destruction procurement have been reported by member states. A large number of UN members have not even complied with their obligations to report the actions they have taken to control their own trade with Pyongyang to the UNSC. Since 2009, Security Council members have not seen fit to substantially enlarge based on member state lists the UNSC’s list of North Korean persons and organizations subject to sanctions. China has never agreed to host a meeting of the UNSC experts with Chinese counterparts on its territory.

Looking Ahead

Experience should demonstrate that a rigorous, top-down national government commitment to trade controls coming from all of North Korea’s trading partners is essential to halt Pyongyang’s weapons trade. For example, before the German government—at the highest level—dramatically made all German exporters accountable by law to strict new requirements two decades ago, well-connected firms could often count on trade bureaucrats to look the other way when faced with lucrative but sensitive contracts. This spring, it was revealed that a supplier of mobile missile-launching vehicles for China’s military had provided this capability to Pyongyang. China denied that any export-control rules were broken. That may be correct, but there are questions about whether the influential state-owned company in this case was left to decide for itself whether it could export these items.

The UNSC report also documents North Korea’s apparent success in setting up a large-scale uranium enrichment plant after sanctions were first imposed five years ago—a success that marked a significant failure of nuclear export controls. Sanctions probably arrived too late to set this program back, but the international community needs to know what can to be done now to arrest or retard this project. An agreement by the sanctions powers—the five permanent members of the UNSC plus South Korea and Japan—to fund aggressive research in this area, and, more generally, to investigate the effectiveness of UNSC sanctions, would be a good place to start.

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The Carnegie Nuclear Policy Program is an internationally acclaimed source of expertise and policy thinking on nuclear industry, nonproliferation, security, and disarmament. Its multinational staff stays at the forefront of nuclear policy issues in the United States, Russia, China, Northeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.


Comments (5)

  • Thomas W. Makin
    I am a former exchange student to Switzerland (1972) and U.S. Envoy for the Nixon administration. I met several North Korean military people at that time. The presence of the U.S. military on the southern border keeps the North Korean Military on 24 hour guard, and has continued the cause the further development of military deterrant systems. United Nations sanctions will serve no purpose as a result of this situation. All that other governments can do is promote normal business, banking, and commercial trade practices; and, therefore influence good will necessary to quietly and carefully lower the potential of military mobilization over time. The answer to this situation is to accept the capability of the North in a respectful way and therefore ease tensions over time.
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  • João
    1 Recommend
    The role of North Korea's main trade partners in easing the impact of the sanctions shows how, despite all attempts to make the UN the privileged international forum for cooperation and dispute settlement among states, bilateral relations and divide-and-rule tactics still prevail in regions of the globe where there has not been a process of reconciliation and integration following the major conflicts of the 20th century.

    Fortunately, the picture is not that bleak and as Mr. Hibbs points out, there is still a relative success to the sanctions imposed on Pyongyang. What we're still not sure of, is the evolution of how China's leadership perceives North Korea's behaviour and evaluates its relationship with Pyongyang. There are growing signs that more actors in China's political leadership are starting to see Beijing's relationship with Pyongyang as a source of embarrassment and a liability for a country that wishes to become a major player in the global stage and this debate is said to be growing in intensity.

    Furthermore, if China's main goals are regional stability and a scaling down of America's military presence in Asia, then Beijing should put increased pressure on Pyongyang to back down on its nuclear ambitions, since the more NK develops its nuclear programme, the more the US will justify a military presence in the Korean Peninsula.
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  • Thomas W. Makin
    Joao; in reply to your well written comments, it is important to remember that North Koreas Nuclear model is one of self defense. I do not believe myself that China objects; however, we might all learn something new about this in the future. The United States has held a nuclear deterrent for self defense since 1945 or so.
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  • Richard Koh
    1 Recommend
    it is allow to trading with North Korea in food items, such as cooking oil, sugar or rice ?
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  • Thomas W. Makin
    1 Recommend
    NORTH KOREA NEEDS BETTER OPTIONS: I understand that the subject that I want to discuss here is somewhat different, but give this a try: As time goes on I am convinced that the North Korean Government would be quite interested in marketing Uranium or Plutonium documents of holdings or even futures on the International Exchange systems in order to continue to generate capital by way of a managed derivitives financial portfolio system utilizing options strategies. The North seriously needs this kind of thing to allow the Nation to safely capitalize on its Uranium and Plutonium natural resources. The Rules are as follows: No delivery of the elements held in storage in North Korea. Instead, just a change of ownership of the investment from time to time in reference to trading of the investment paper. The result of an intent to preserve these elements for future peaceful purposes on the part of the North would be quite reasonable to assume. It is my opinion that this kind of International Financial Strategy would gain universal acceptance, because the basis for the strategy is not military defense.
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