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Would More Sanctions Sway North Korea?
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April 2017

By Kelsey Davenport

The United States is considering broader sanctions on North Korea, although it is unclear how effective the additional measures will be in curbing Pyongyang’s expanding nuclear and ballistic missile programs and in pushing North Korea to negotiate restrictions on these programs.

Absent a broader strategy, clear objectives, and consistent implementation, additional sanctions are unlikely to change North Korea’s behavior. Focusing on implementation of existing measures, however, could help disrupt the illicit networks Pyongyang uses to circumvent sanctions and import and export restricted goods.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Sohae Satellite Launching Station for a test of a new high-thrust rocket engine in a photo released by the state-run Korean Central News Agency on March 19. (Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images)The accelerating pace of North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs is bringing renewed urgency to efforts to pressure Pyongyang to return to denuclearization negotiations before it tests a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile, which President Donald Trump indicated in a January tweet would cross what he considers a red line. “It won’t happen,” he declared in the three-word tweet, and he has met several times since then with his national security team to develop a new strategy on North Korea.

Trump has yet to provide details on his administration’s overall North Korea strategy or the role that sanctions will play in achieving his objectives. If Trump chooses to pursue talks, his administration has various options, such as seeking an interim agreement designed to freeze North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs until a more comprehensive agreement is reached or negotiating a denuclearization agreement at the outset. Absent a clear objective for the sanctions regime, it will be difficult to assess the value of additional restrictions, although there is some value in imposing sanctions to demonstrate to Pyongyang that there is a cost to flouting its international obligations.

Pyongyang is already subject to UN sanctions for its continued development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in defiance of UN Security Council prohibitions, including Resolutions 2270 and 2321, passed in 2016 in response to North Korean nuclear tests. Some countries, including the United States, have imposed their own sanctions on Pyongyang for these activities.

The Trump administration and Congress are considering additional sanctions in response to recent North Korean provocations such as its missile launches on Feb. 12 and March 6. (See ACT, March 2017.) A senior U.S. official was quoted by Reuters on March 21 saying that the administration is considering “broad sanctions” against North Korea that may include measures to increase pressure on Chinese banks and firms that do business with Pyongyang.

This is consistent with recent comments from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Tillerson said in his confirmation hearings in January that he supported additional sanctions to fill gaps in the existing sanctions regime on North Korea. During a March 17 press conference in Seoul, he told reporters that “all options are on the table” for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear activities, ranging from sanctions to pre-emptive military action.

Members of Congress are also calling for additional restrictions. In a Feb. 14 letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called for the United States to take actions that, if enforced, “could more effectively cut off North Korea’s access to the hard currency it uses to finance its illicit nuclear program.” The suggested actions include investigating whether North Korea “merits re-designation as a state sponsor of terrorism,” enforcing penalties against banks that provide correspondent services to North Korean banks, denying North Korean banks access to financial messaging services, investigating Chinese banks that conduct transactions with North Korea for violations of U.S. law, and freezing assets of any Chinese entity with assets in the United States that is importing coal from North Korea. Four other Republicans signed the letter.

Limited Benefit

Pursuing additional sanctions may not be the best tactic for influencing North Korean behavior, particularly given the poor enforcement of existing measures. Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, said on March 21 at the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference that “sanctions are highly unlikely to work” and noted that, despite an uptick in restrictions on Pyongyang, North Korea’s economy is improving under Kim Jong Un.

Andrea Berger, a senior program manager at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said at the same event that assessing the sanctions’ effectiveness depends on their objectives. She said sanctions have not been very effective in encouraging North Korea to resume negotiations on its nuclear program, but noted that there are critical subsidiary objectives for sanctions, such as preventing North Korea from accessing technologies for its programs and stemming North Korea’s illicit trade networks.

The Obama administration’s approach to North Korea put a return to negotiations on denuclearization as the objective of the sanctions regime. The policy, known as strategic patience, included increasing pressure on Pyongyang through sanctions, while stating a willingness to resume negotiations after North Korea takes steps toward denuclearization.

One expert on North Korea sanctions, who formerly served on a Security Council panel of experts in charge of assessing implementation of UN sanctions, criticized the Obama administration’s approach. In a March 21 email, he said that, without “buy-in on enforcing sanctions” from the international community and “an offer of carrots” for Pyongyang, sanctions alone were unlikely to influence North Korean behavior.

The expert, who asked not to be named because he holds a position in government, said he is not optimistic that sanctions would work any better for a Trump administration, particularly prior to developing a strategy toward North Korea. He said that “sanctions are tool, and tools work best if you know what you’re trying to build” and Trump does not have a clear plan.

Enhancing Enforcement

Although there may be limits to the effectiveness of additional sanctions, focusing on enforcement of existing measures could curb Pyongyang’s access to the materials and technologies necessary for advancing its nuclear and missile programs.

North Korea has developed a range of domestic capabilities for producing sensitive dual-use technologies, but it still relies on imports of certain technologies for its rockets. Analysis of debris recovered by South Korea from the rocket used by North Korea to launch a satellite in February 2016 shows that Pyongyang is using certain components sourced to foreign countries, including pressure transmitters manufactured in the United Kingdom.

Berger also described the current sanctions regime as “a sieve” and said that the focus should be on building capacity to enforce existing measures, such as ensuring that countries have the domestic legal frameworks for implementing UN measures.

China is frequently cited for poor enforcement of UN sanctions on North Korea. China accounts for about 80 percent of North Korea’s trade and has tended to resist moves in the Security Council to increase sanctions, in part reflecting its long-standing concerns about triggering instability and a humanitarian crisis in the neighboring country.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se during a press conference on March 17 in Seoul. (Photo credit: Song Kyung-Seok-Pool/Getty Images)Beijing has complied recently with caps set by UN Security Council sanctions on imports of North Korean coal, Pyongyang’s largest export item. China said in February that it was suspending all imports of coal from North Korea for the rest of the year.

But the former panel member said that it is too early to say if Beijing’s compliance is “merely cosmetic or signals a shift” in sanctions enforcement. He noted although coal imports from North Korea were cut, China continued its imports of certain metals in early 2017. Security Council Resolution 2321, passed in September 2016, bans countries from importing copper, nickel, silver, and zinc from North Korea. In assessing China’s performance, he said, the “real test is time.”

China is not the only country that can take steps to enhance enforcement of UN sanctions. Only 76 states reported to the Security Council on their implementation of the March 2016 sanctions resolution on North Korea. That is an increase in reporting since the prior resolution, but a majority of states fail to provide information about efforts to implement UN restrictions.

The most recent report from the panel of experts that assesses implementation of UN sanctions for the Security Council recommended steps to improve global compliance. One was that countries “rigorously implement the now legally binding ‘catch-all’ provision for items which could contribute to the country’s nuclear or ballistic missile programmes.”

Another former member of the panel of experts, George A. Lopez, wrote in a March 13 column for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that the February report’s recommendations “go beyond the weak, oft-heard call that nations must increase their vigilance in enforcing sanctions.”

Lopez noted that the report recommends that states “clarify their methods of implementing sanctions where trade in minerals is concerned; share more information regarding cases of sanctions evasion; and regularly update their lists of companies and ships that adopt aliases to avoid identification as they pursue illicit activities.”

South Korea Gets Missile Defense System

A U.S.-supplied missile defense battery for South Korea is scheduled to become operational as soon as this month, amid growing tensions with North Korea, opposition from China, and mixed signals about how a new government in Seoul will view the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. 

The arrival of the THAAD components in early March occurred over the objections of China, which describes the deployment as a provocative move. Beijing’s concern, in part, is that the system’s powerful radar would enable the United States to quickly detect and track Chinese missile launches. The United States denies that THAAD deployments to South Korea and Japan pose a threat to the security of China, which has shown its displeasure by curtailing some business and tourism ties with South Korea.

The THAAD system is intended to provide a limited defense for South Korea from North Korean ballistic missile attacks. That threat was highlighted by Pyongyang’s missile tests during March as the United States and South Korea conducted joint military exercises in which about 3,600 U.S. service members were deployed to join the 28,000 U.S. troops already based in South Korea. 

With South Korea due to hold presidential elections May 9, frontrunner Moon Jae-in has sought to smooth relations with China and signaled that if he wins, his government would review the deployment. A negative decision by the liberal Korean politician would mark a rift with the United States, which is committed to defending South Korea under a mutual defense treaty. 

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is trying to formulate a new North Korea policy that would end years of diplomatic stalemate while the country had advanced its missile and nuclear weapons capabilities in defiance of UN Security Council prohibitions. The issue has become more urgent as leader Kim Jong Un has increased his country’s production of nuclear weapons and is seeking the capability to extend his threats to the continental United States with a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile. 

The Trump administration has abandoned the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience,” which envisioned out-waiting Pyongyang while ratcheting up pressure on North Korea through sanctions and covert actions, without a decision on what will take its place.

“Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said March 17 in Seoul, during a trip that included consultation in Tokyo and Beijing. “We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security, and economic measures. All options are on the table. North Korea must understand that the only path to a secure, economically prosperous future is to abandon its development of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and other weapons of mass destruction.”

North Korea gave no indication that it is impressed by such talk, firing back with threats of its own and a publicized test of a new, high-powered rocket engine under the watchful eye of Kim himself. The test on March 18 coincided with Tillerson’s talks with Chinese leaders in Beijing, timing that amounted to a rebuff of the pressures from the United States and China, its main economic lifeline and ally.

Kim’s actions raise the stakes for the meeting tentatively planned for early April between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort. Trump has criticized China repeatedly for not doing enough to pressure Kim to return to negotiations on denuclearization. 

Standing alongside Tillerson in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reflected his government’s concerns about the Trump administration when he urged the United States to be “cool headed” in order to “arrive at a wise decision.”

Posted: March 31, 2017