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Monitoring imports to and exports from North Korea of items relevant to the production and operation of nuclear weapons and/or missiles would strengthen any negotiated limits on the country’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. Existing United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions ban the export to and import from North Korea of a wide variety of items that could contribute to its nuclear weapons and missile programs. These resolutions also require the inspection of cargo destined to or originating from North Korea, and they require countries to seize and impound ships caught smuggling illicit items.

These UNSC resolutions could be even more effective at strengthening negotiated limits on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs if they were enhanced with requirements that, first, all cargo only be permitted to enter North Korea immediately after going through inspection at one of a few designated road, rail, sea, and air points of entry (POEs) and that, second, all cargo coming out of North Korea must first be inspected at these same POEs before moving on elsewhere.

A POE system could be negotiated with North Korea as part of an agreement to place limits on its nuclear weapons and missile programs. Alternatively, such a system could be imposed without negotiations with Pyongyang through action by the UNSC to augment such an agreement. The Security Council could even impose such a system in the absence of negotiated limits on missile- and nuclear weapons–related items to increase pressure on North Korea or in response to a provocation. Chinese cooperation would be needed to secure the kind of new UNSC resolution necessary to establish a POE system, and just as with current restrictions on North Korean imports and exports under existing UNSC resolutions, Chinese (especially) and Russian cooperation would be key.

Monitoring North Korean Imports and Exports

Monitoring imports to and exports from North Korea could help with detecting and deterring noncompliance with limits on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile programs while also bolstering confidence in North Korean compliance with those limits.

Vann H. Van Diepen
Vann H. Van Diepen is an independent consultant after thirty-four years of U.S. government service on weapons of mass destruction issues. From 2009 to 2016, he was principal deputy assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation (including over two years as acting assistant secretary). From 2006 to 2009, he was national intelligence officer for weapons of mass destruction and proliferation in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Such monitoring would serve these purposes in three key ways:

  • First, monitoring would help detect missile- and nuclear weapons–related imports into North Korea that would indicate Pyongyang is cheating on the agreed-upon limits, and such monitoring would also impede North Korea’s ability to cheat by preventing such imports.
  • Second, monitoring would allow Pyongyang’s negotiating partners to detect exports from North Korea in support of its activities in third countries designed to circumvent agreed-upon limits (such as attempts to conduct prohibited North Korean missile tests in Iran). Such monitoring also would obstruct such circumvention by impeding the transport of items that would be needed from North Korea to make such attempts elsewhere.
  • Third, such monitoring would help detect and impede North Korean exports in support of other countries’ own nuclear weapons or missile programs. Such support would violate the terms of a future agreement with North Korea or parallel UNSC resolutions, constitute a North Korean provocation, undermine U.S. and international security by fueling those other countries’ nuclear weapons and missile programs, and provide export revenues that Pyongyang could use to support its own nuclear weapons and missile programs.

Current UNSC resolutions ban the export to and import from North Korea of a host of missile- and nuclear weapons–related items, and these resolutions require the inspection of all cargo bound for or originating from North Korea to identify such items for seizure. The inspection requirement of these UNSC resolutions is implemented by all member states wherever North Korea–linked cargo originates from, or travels through, on its way to or from the country. This means that inspection resources are spread thin, member states’ capacity limits are difficult to redress, and North Korea and its customers have more choices in exploiting weak links in this system. (Transshipment and finance hubs such as Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates have been exploited by North Korea in the past, as well as China and Russia.)

Adding a POE Requirement

The existing UNSC inspection requirement—and monitoring of missile- and nuclear weapons–related imports and exports in support of negotiated limits on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile programs—could be implemented more effectively if existing UNSC resolutions were enhanced with a requirement that all cargo only be permitted to enter North Korea immediately after going through inspection at one of a few designated road, rail, sea, and air points of entry (POEs). Additionally, the POE requirement should stipulate that all cargo coming out of North Korea must first be inspected at these same POEs before moving on elsewhere. Geography and logistics suggest China would be the best location for the POEs, although Beijing has been inconsistent in its implementation of UNSC resolutions on North Korea. In theory, POEs could be located almost anywhere (although the closer to North Korea, the better).

Because a POE requirement would bind all UN member states, this approach would have to be instituted by the Security Council via a new resolution (such as one that would codify or endorse the results of U.S.–North Korea negotiations limiting Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile programs). But the POE portion of such a resolution would be relatively limited since the POE system would only add to the existing limits a restriction on the routing of cargo.

The POE system could result from U.S. negotiations with North Korea on its nuclear weapons and missile programs (as a collateral constraint agreed to by Pyongyang to build confidence in its compliance with an agreement). Alternatively, such a system could be imposed on North Korea as part of the international community’s external monitoring of an agreement on its nuclear weapons and missile programs. A POE system would usefully augment almost any kind of negotiated constraints on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile capabilities. POE provisions would even be a useful way to augment existing UN sanctions in the absence of any new agreement with Pyongyang on its nuclear weapons and missile programs.

The practical advantages of a POE system would be diverse. Inspection and capacity-building assets could be focused on these POEs. Any cargo going to or from North Korea not certified as having gone through these POEs would automatically be deemed illicit and subject to seizure anywhere in the world under existing UNSC resolutions (along with the ships carrying them). Although Pyongyang could still try to smuggle goods across other parts of the Chinese or Russian borders (except by rail) or could try to sneak ships or even aircraft into and out of North Korea without going through the designated POEs, such attempts would automatically be deemed illicit, and such ships would be increasingly vulnerable to seizure over time. Moreover, the current UNSC requirements on all UN member states worldwide to inspect North Korea–linked cargo and seize illicit shipments and ships would remain in parallel with the POE system. The current arrangement would still offer opportunities in other countries to catch missile- and nuclear weapons–related items smuggled around or snuck through the POEs.

Implementing a POE System

There are different ways a POE system could be designed. It could be implemented in a bare-bones way by relying on the existing inspection authorities in the country (likely China) or countries hosting the POEs as required under the current UNSC resolutions. Alternatively, the system could be implemented in a more elaborate manner. Potential ways to enhance the implementation of the POE system include multilateral mechanisms, cargo certification processes, and oversight authorities for import and export financing.

  • Multilateral mechanisms. The UN, the P5, or other directly interested states (including Japan and South Korea) could assist China (the presumptive POE host) with oversight, conducting inspections, and/or making decisions about shipment blocking. The involvement of other countries could lessen the burden on China of the additional inspections and seizures triggered by the POE requirement, both in terms of resources and personnel as well as the responsibility for evaluating and deciding to block imports and exports. Involving other countries also would increase the effectiveness of inspections, particularly if other countries helped to vet imports and exports using their own information resources. Cargo information from the POEs also could be shared with the UN Panel of Experts established pursuant to UNSC Resolution 1874, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to assist them in their work.
  • A system to certify cargo as POE-inspected. Cargo leaving the POEs—whether inbound or outbound—and its accompanying paperwork would be recorded and stamped to indicate it had been inspected. Suspect North Korea–related cargo could then be checked to see if it had been recorded (and was the same cargo as the records indicated), while unstamped North Korea–related cargo detected outside the POEs would automatically be deemed illicit. This practice would enhance monitoring and deter efforts to sneak cargo around the POEs.
  • Parallel oversight of the financing of North Korean imports and exports. A parallel UNSC requirement could be established to stipulate that the funding for North Korean imports and exports going through the POEs must go through UN-designated banks. Decisions to permit imports and exports to proceed from the POEs would be coordinated with funding information from the designated banks, either directly between the import/export and finance implementers or via the UN North Korea Sanctions Committee. This approach would provide an additional layer of restraint, offer more data to be evaluated along with inspection data, and further deter proliferation finance.

The international community has experience in implementing these types of measures, one or more of which were included in the implementation of UN sanctions against Iraq from 1990 to 2003 and the handling of the procurement channel for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran since 2015. The Iraq sanctions included all three of these measures covering a large volume of trade, but their implementation was plagued by corruption and active undermining by various UNSC members. The JCPOA with Iran included a multilateral transaction-vetting mechanism and a means of certifying cargo that was much more successful, but this mechanism handled only a few transactions.

Monitoring and Assessing Compliance

Attempts to sneak prohibited cargo through the POEs would primarily be monitored by inspecting cargo on its way in and out of North Korea. At a minimum, such monitoring would be performed by the country hosting the POE, but ideally this would be done by a UN or multinational team. Efforts to sneak prohibited cargo around the POEs would primarily be monitored via U.S. and other UN member states’ national technical means, just as has long been the case for existing UNSC restrictions on imports and exports. Data from the inspections and information from various countries’ national technical means would reinforce each other in monitoring both types of cheating. Any of the three implementation enhancements noted above would further bolster the system.

Just as with current UN sanctions, data on noncompliance would be assessed by the UN North Korea Sanctions Committee, and the United States and other states would be free to draw their own compliance conclusions as well. In the event of noncompliance, as with current UNSC resolutions, the Security Council could impose additional measures (such as strengthening the monitoring system or adding further sanctions against North Korean persons or entities), and the United States and other countries also could take actions of their own, such as sanctioning both North Korean and other entities involved in illicit transactions.

China’s role in the implementation of the proposed POE system would be essential. This is the case because the POE system must be initiated via a UNSC resolution that China could veto and because the best locations for the POEs would be in China. It is unclear if Beijing would support a POE system given the current state of U.S.-China relations, although Beijing’s interest in a negotiated resolution of the North Korea nuclear issue may lead it to cooperate. China already faces substantial implementation and enforcement challenges with existing UNSC restrictions on North Korean imports and exports that would persist under a POE system, but if Beijing were prepared to accept U.S. and other outside assistance in POE cargo inspections and decisionmaking, many of these challenges could be substantially mitigated.

Conclusion

Monitoring imports to and exports from North Korea of items related to the production and operation of nuclear weapons and missiles would help the international community detect and deter noncompliance with negotiated limits on the country’s nuclear weapons and missile programs and, by extension, bolster confidence in Pyongyang’s compliance with those limits. This proposed POE approach is one promising way of making such monitoring a more manageable task.