A house without foundations

North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon over a decade ago, in October 2006. UN sanctions have been part of the international community’s tools to address the concerning trajectory of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes ever since. They have evolved substantially, particularly since 2016, to become the most complex UN sanctions regime ever designed. Yet, today, the sanctions regime on North Korea faces a crisis of legitimacy, repeatedly being accused of ‘not working’ to advance their stated aim of convincing North Korea to come back to the table over its nuclear programme.

Pyongyang has not changed its calculus since UN sanctions were imposed in 2006. Instead, it has accelerated research and development on new delivery vehicles and warhead types, and has stepped up the pace of nuclear and ballistic missile testing.  Frustrations with the effectiveness of sanctions are understandable in this troubling context. However, any effort to recalibrate the pressures and inducements used to shift the North Korean leadership’s views in favour of concessions on its nuclear programme must be underpinned by a detailed diagnosis of the sanctions regime’s ailments, particularly in relation to implementation. This report offers such a diagnosis.

It does so by exploring three variables determining the effectiveness of UN sanctions as currently designed: the sophistication and scale of North Korea’s own evasive abilities; the approaches taken by UN member states towards implementing their Security Council-imposed obligations; and the behaviour of the private sector. In examining the state of play of each, the report relies primarily on open-source information, including years of the author’s own detailed open-source investigations into North Korean networks and sanctions breaches. These sources are bolstered by expert interviews conducted on a not-for-attribution basis in Asia and North America in autumn 2016. Recognising that it is not possible to provide a comprehensive picture of the evasive behaviour of North Korean networks, the national policies and practices of all UN member states, and the actions of myriad private sector entities, this paper instead offers a snapshot.  The report finds that not a single component of the UN sanctions regime against North Korea currently enjoys robust international implementation. Global gaps in awareness, capacity and political interest were not addressed while the sanctions regime against North Korea was modestly sized. Obligations on UN members are now significantly more complex than they were pre-2016, creating an acute crisis in the North Korea sanctions regime’s implementation. While China has always been a significant part of the story, it is certainly not the only stumbling block. The problem is that rather than addressing these issues with the sanctions regime, the key advocates of sanctions appear to have prioritised individual enforcement actions to deliver limited effect. Moreover, North Korea’s own evasive techniques have helped those perpetrating sanctioned activity to outpace the efforts of those seeking to counter it. Unless these deficiencies are rectified, sanctions will not generate the pressure on North Korea that they intend to. They are therefore also unlikely to hold any chance of changing Pyongyang’s calculus, or achieving more limited aims, such as preventing North Korean proliferation to others.

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