Sanctions: An Important Component of U.S. North Korea Policy

The North Korean cargo ship, Kang Nam I, turned back from a suspected voyage to Myanmar after being tracked by the U.S. Navy.

The debate over the utility of sanctions in foreign policy is usually depicted in binary fashion, i.e. whether the U.S. should use pressure or engagement. The reality, of course, is that sanctions and engagement—along with economic assistance, military deterrence, alliances, and public diplomacy—are all diplomatic tools to influence the negotiating behavior of the other side. Rather than being used in isolation, these tools are most effective when integrated into a comprehensive strategy utilizing all the instruments of national power. The level of engagement and timing must be modulated to fit the circumstances. But completely abandoning or over-relying on any component of national power reduces the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy.

Sanctions and engagement are a means to an objective rather than an end in and of themselves, a point often lost on those who claim the mere resumption of negotiations is itself a success. To be most effective, sanctions must include a way to ameliorate their impact—as incentive to end the abhorrent behavior that triggered them—just as engagement must carry a penalty when the conditions are violated.

To assess the effectiveness of UN and bilateral sanctions on North Korea, the three principle criteria are whether they: signal resolve to enforce international agreements; have an economic impact on the target country; and bring about the desired policy change.

Sanctions Show Resolve to Enforce International Agreements. Sanctions send a strong signal that there are consequences for defying international agreements. As President Barack Obama correctly commented, “sanctions are a critical part of our leverage to pressure North Korea to act. If the North Koreans do not meet their obligations, we should move quickly to re-impose sanctions that have been waived and consider new restrictions going forward.”[1]

In 2009, in response to Pyongyang’s belligerent behavior and violations of UN resolutions, President Obama declared, “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.”[2] Subsequently, the UN Security Council approved a more restrictive resolution and imposed enhanced punitive measures against the North. As a result, there is now a greater international willingness to confront and intercept North Korean vessels suspected of carrying weapons or related technology, which also deprives the regime of another source of revenue. One estimate is that North Korea’s weapons exports have dropped 90 percent as a result of these sanctions.[3]

Principles are important. If laws and UN resolutions are not enforced and defended, they cease to have value. There must be a heavy penalty for provocative actions that transgress the law. Removing sanctions, as some advocate, would undermine efforts to deter weapons proliferation and send a dangerous signal to other nuclear aspirants. If the international community isn’t willing to enforce international law and defend UN resolutions, why should we expect nations to abide by them?

Sanctions are Causing Economic Pain to North Korea… U.S., South Korean, and Japanese officials have privately commented that intelligence data indicate that sanctions are having a deleterious financial impact on the Kim regime. In addition to UN measures and the interception of its illegal arms shipments, North Korea also faces growing restrictions on other revenue sources:

  • The U.S. and South Korea are less willing to offer unconditional benefits without progress in the Six Party Talks;
  • Seoul refuses to resume the Mount Kumgang tourist venture after North Korea killed a South Korean visitor and refused to conduct an investigation;
  • South Korean businesses are less willing to invest in the Kaesong economic zone following Pyongyang’s anti-market actions;
  • International aid is drying up in response to Pyongyang’s refusal to accept global monitoring standards;
  • Pyongyang’s self-inflicted wound of currency revaluation and crackdowns on free markets in late 2009 exacerbated the country’s economic problems.

As a result of this “perfect storm” of restrictions, North Korea faces increasing economic isolation that could lead the regime to become more malleable.

U.S. officials have explained that current international sanctions will be even more effective than the unilateral American measures targeting Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in 2005-07. In that case, it was an unpopular U.S. administration asking countries to participate while UN sanctions require all nations to comply.

The BDA law enforcement initiative was derided at the time by critics who characterized it as a neoconservative attempt to undermine the Six Party nuclear negotiations. But senior Obama officials now privately characterize the initiative as having been “very effective” and that President George Bush’s decision to rescind it was “a mistake that eased pressure on Pyongyang before it took irreversible steps to dismantle its nuclear program.”

The U.S. action against BDA, taken in conjunction with a sub rosa effort by U.S. officials meeting privately with foreign banks and businesses, had a chilling effect on the North Korean regime’s financial status. Foreign businesses and banks were less willing to do business with North Korea for fear of being designated as complicit in North Korean illegal activity. That included banks in Singapore, Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, and Mongolia.[4]

…But Have Not Yet Achieved Denuclearization. Despite success in defending UN resolutions and imposing economic consequences, sanctions have not yet induced North Korea to resume its pledge to abandon its nuclear weapons. This leads some analysts to conclude that sanctions aren’t working and should be abandoned. However, these measures have only been in place a short time and more could be done to strengthen them. Some of those who are so impatient to declare sanctions a failure had inordinate patience for 10 years of unconditional South Korean largesse that did nothing to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

North Korea has withstood sanctions in the past because nations were eager to abandon them in return for fecklessly buying Pyongyang’s way back to the status quo or for simply returning to the negotiating table. But this time, North Korea faces an international community emboldened to confront Pyongyang over its belligerent behavior.

China Remains the Weak Link. Long a defender of North Korean interests, China has belatedly come to the realization that sanctions must play a part in the multilateral approach toward eliminating Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons. Yet, China remains a reluctant partner in international efforts to impose punitive measures on North Korea for its violations of UN resolutions, fearful that a resolute response could trigger North Korean instability or even collapse, replacing a buffer state on its border with a powerful reunified Korea.

The effectiveness of sanctions is hindered by China’s willingness to provide economic benefits outside of the conditionality of the Six Party Talks. Chinese economic engagement, though not a violation of UN resolutions, undermines the overall effectiveness of sanctions. By offering alternative sources of revenue, Beijing reduces the likelihood that North Korea will return to the Six Party Talks. Why would Pyongyang seek the conditional benefits offered as inducements in the nuclear negotiations when it can receive the same benefits directly from China?

What Should Be Done—More Pain, More Gain. Washington should insist that all nations fully implement UN sanctions in order to prevent North Korean procurement and export of missile- and WMD-related components and freeze the financial assets of any complicit North Korean or foreign person, company, bank, or government. The sanctions should be maintained until Pyongyang abandons the behavior that triggered the punitive actions.

Given North Korea’s continuing defiance of the UN, the Obama Administration should press the Security Council to close the loopholes in Resolution 1874, such as adding measures to enable military means to enforce the sanctions. Doing so would prevent recurrences of the Kang Nam incident in which the U.S. Navy was prevented from boarding a North Korean ship suspected of being engaged in proliferation. 

The UN should also begin targeting the other end of the proliferation pipeline. To date, the Obama administration and the international community have been reluctant to fully enforce Resolution 1874, preferring instead to focus only on North Korean noncompliance. However, growing concerns over Pyongyang’s nuclear relationships with Burma, Syria, and Iran indicate it is now time to identify and target foreign companies, banks, and governments that facilitate North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

If the UN is reluctant to do so, Washington should impose unilateral sanctions on a more extensive list of foreign entities engaged in proliferation, as well as call upon other nations to fulfill their obligations to enforce laws and UN resolutions. The advantage of U.S. sanctions is that they are not dependent on Chinese acquiescence.

Washington should also lead a global effort to enforce international law against North Korean illegal activities, including counterfeiting of currency and pharmaceuticals, illegal production and distribution of narcotics, and money laundering. The U.S. should identify and target North Korean government agencies such as Office 39, a special department that collects funds for Kim Jong Il’s personal use. Law enforcement, implementing UN resolutions, and combating proliferation should not be negotiable, nor politicized, for the sake of what may appear to be progress in the Six Party Talks.

Adding Lanes to the Road of Engagement. The U.S. should also leave open the door to the Six Party Talks as well as be amenable to adding lanes to the road of engagement. A more comprehensive, integrated strategy would offer Pyongyang a path to greater economic and diplomatic benefits while still insisting on conditionality, reciprocity, and transparency.

The U.S. should develop, in conjunction with North Korea’s neighbors, a strategic blueprint that clearly defines the desired end-state, objectives, and requirements for all parties, as well as a roadmap delineating the linkages, schedule, and metrics for achieving measurable results. Negotiating venues should be pursued bilaterally or multilaterally depending on their impact on a country’s national interests. For example, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan could begin negotiations with Pyongyang to eliminate North Korea’s missile threats to its neighbors. Such talks should reduce or eliminate the North Korean missile force rather than simply pay a ransom for Pyongyang’s pledge to not export missiles.

The U.S., China, North Korea, and South Korea could begin discussions on a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, though this should not be seen as a substitute for progress in reducing North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. Such negotiations, however, should include conventional force reductions and the implementation of confidence-building measures.

Trying to Negotiate the Non-Negotiable? While a comprehensive integrated strategy utilizing all the tools of coercion and persuasion provides the best potential for achieving North Korean denuclearization, we must realize we may be trying to negotiate the non-negotiable. There may not be any magical combination of benefits and punishments that gets Pyongyang to abandon its decades long quest to develop nuclear weapons.

Through successive administrations, Washington has sought to engage Pyongyang in sustained diplomatic give and take, but North Korea has continually refused or placed obstacles in the path of negotiated solutions. In early 2009, there were euphoric expectations that the transition from President Bush to Obama would cause the North Korean leopard to change its spots.

Yet, North Korea quickly engaged in a series of provocations that brought a dawning realization that Pyongyang, and not the various U.S. policies under Clinton and Bush, was to blame for the North Korean nuclear problem. Pyongyang’s actions last year created a greater sense of pessimism in Washington that engagement would work or that denuclearization was possible than had previously existed. Ironically, Pyongyang’s behavior only succeeded in enabling President Obama to increase the level of international pressure beyond that which President Bush had been able to garner.

What is Obama’s Plan B? The Obama administration’s two-track policy of pressure and negotiations is an improvement over earlier approaches that veered to either extreme. However, “strategic patience” is insufficient as a long-term strategy. Simply containing North Korea in a box is problematic for several reasons. First, it allows Pyongyang to expand and refine its nuclear and missile delivery capabilities. This not only further undermines the security of the U.S. and its allies but also sends a dangerous signal of de facto acceptance to other nuclear aspirants. Members of Congress, the media, and think tanks who excoriated the Bush administration’s policy of “benign neglect” are now hypocritically silent against Obama’s similar strategy.

Second, North Korea may not obligingly stay in a box. The North Korean nuclear genie has already escaped the peninsular bottle. Pyongyang proliferated nuclear technology to assist Syria in constructing a covert reactor. North Korea may also be involved with nuclear weapons programs in Iran and Myanmar.

Third, North Korea may not meekly acquiesce to a steadily declining condition. In the past, Pyongyang has reacted to feelings of weakness by lashing out in a provocative manner. It would not be unexpected if North Korea were to revert to escalatory tactics, including more long-range missile and nuclear tests.

It’s past time to face the reality that the Six Party Talks are unlikely to achieve the real objective of getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. Washington should therefore begin discussions with its allies over possible next steps for policy toward North Korea, particularly in light of a future leadership succession in Pyongyang. It is best to start having the discussion now and coordinating policy rather than simply allowing the status quo to continue….and continue to deteriorate.

[1] Ellis, Jonathan, “McCain and Obama on North Korea,” The Caucus, June 26, 2008.
(March 17, 2009).

[2] Remarks by President Barack Obama in Prague, Czech Republic, April 5, 2009.

[3] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute as quoted in Chosun Ilbo, “N. Korea’s Weapons Experts ‘Down 90%’ Since UN Sanctions,” January 26, 2010.

[4] Associated Press, “Banks Said Severing Ties with N. Korea,” August 29, 2006.

Recommended citation: Klingner, Bruce, “Sanctions – an Important Component of U.S. North Korea Policy, 38 North, Washington, D.C.: U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University, May 1, 2010. Online at:

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