What is Left to Sanction? Options for Responding to the Next North Korean Provocation

SAWL2By design, the UN Security Council is a reactive architect of sanctions regimes; its measures addressing North Korean nuclear and missile programs demonstrates this clearly. The 15-country body created an initial round of sanctions in 2006 in response to the North’s first nuclear test, expanded on the measures after its second test in 2009, and built on them further in response to both its December 2012 rocket launch and its February 2013 nuclear test.

As a result, any whiff of a forthcoming North Korean provocation tends to spark diplomatic discussions about expanding sanctions. When it does, the question often posed is, simply, what is there left to sanction? Numerous foreign officials quietly asked this question of the author in spring 2014, as North Korea threatened to conduct another nuclear test. The question arose again this autumn, when the country reiterated its right to launch new satellites.

It is widely acknowledged that the sanctions regime would benefit most from more uniform and effective implementation of the existing measures by UN Member States, rather than new operative paragraphs. However, pressuring capitals that lag behind on implementation is a slow affair pursued by UN experts and foreign government officials behind closed doors. This approach is poorly suited to two key goals of UN Security Council representatives in the immediate aftermath of a North Korean space launch or nuclear test: showing North Korea that its actions have consequences, and assuring home constituencies that they are responding with more than words. Therefore, if North Korea conducts another provocation in the near future, the Security Council will almost certainly try to tinker with the sanctions regime as it has done before.

Numerous options for strengthening the sanctions regime still exist. As a first order of business, the Security Council could offer clarification regarding some of the grey areas which persist in the sanctions regime, as previously discussed on 38 North.

Yet clarifications alone will not alleviate the pressures mentioned above. As a more concrete step, the Security Council should take action against those non-North Korean entities and individuals who consciously facilitate North Korean proliferation by introducing targeted sanctions against some of them. Doing so would remind countries along North Korea’s proliferation pathways—those that are not the source or destination countries for illicit goods, but rather host “middlemen”—that they must ensure that their citizens and residents comply with UN resolutions when they do business with Pyongyang.

The Security Council should also eliminate the exemption for the sale of small arms and light weapons to North Korea, the justifications for which do not stand up to scrutiny.

A Modest Status Quo

At present, the UN sanctions regime on North Korea consists of several parts: an embargo on items related to WMD and ballistic missile programs; a conventional arms embargo which forbids North Korea from buying or selling all arms or related materiel or services, though purchases of small arms and light weapons are exempted; a ban on the provision of finances or financial services to proscribed North Korean programs; a ban on the export of luxury goods to North Korea; and a travel ban and asset freeze on listed individuals and entities, including those who deal with them.

The last of these components is the most deficient. The list that the Security Council has agreed to target is remarkably short, considering the extent of the activities prohibited: 12 individuals and 20 entities. The UN’s own Panel of Experts on North Korea has already shown that many more are known to have materially assisted either WMD or missile programs, or arms sales overseas. By contrast, the soon-to-be-disbanded sanctions list for Iran contains 43 individuals and 78 entities.

Though designations fall out of date because the sanctioned parties change or create new aliases, formally designating North Korean individuals and entities is an important step. Resolutions concerning North Korea require UN Member States to take action against the affiliates of sanctioned parties. The 2014 designation of the North Korean shipping firm Ocean Maritime Management (OMM) has already provided grounds for Singapore to charge and try Chinpo Shipping, and its owner Tan Cheng Hoe, who assisted with OMM’s shipment of arms and related material from Cuba to North Korea in July 2013. Yet these cases are rare. Many governments only act if the UN requires them to, namely by designating a new entity or individual and providing an accompanying explanation. Countries that choose to take independent action against unnamed affiliates of sanctioned parties must rely on their own information gathering, demonstrating a legally convincing link with a UN-sanctioned party. Few appear willing to do so.

Adding to this challenge is the fact that middlemen in DPRK proliferation chains have not been singled out under the UN Security Council sanctions regime for their involvement in illicit DPRK trade, giving UN Member States no formal international legal grounds to act against them. The admittedly short UN-sanctioned parties list targets only North Korean individuals, with one exception, North Korean-owned or -controlled organizations and companies. Only the insightful but under-read reports by the UN Panel of Experts on North Korea contain details of who North Korea’s trusted middlemen are and where they operate from. Unlike formal designations, however, Panel of Experts reports do not oblige UN member states to take action against these facilitators.

Longstanding non-North Korean facilitators are an indispensable part of the North Korean network. Without them, Pyongyang would find it increasingly difficult to move goods or process payments. For decades, “trusted” partners like Chinpo Shipping have regularly facilitated North Korean transactions—both legitimate and illegitimate—as part of their broader business. An earlier investigation for 38 North showed that OMM’s other Singapore-based affiliates have similarly deep-seated business relationships with the reclusive state.

Many more examples illustrate how North Korea’s proliferation activity benefits from clusters of international facilitators. While the UN Panel of Experts has published details about entities in Egypt, Singapore and Hong Kong, for example, the Security Council and its relevant Sanctions Committee have yet to take formal action.[1]

This aspect of the sanctions regime could be enhanced. Targeting key supporting nodes would disrupt North Korea’s broader network, and it would serve as a powerful deterrent. For the most part, the facilitators of these networks operate other legitimate businesses which they have an interest in maintaining. Prominent, Security Council-backed reminders of the risks and consequences of running afoul of international sanctions—specifically by mixing illegitimate North Korean business with legitimate trade—could incite wider compliance amongst the half-hearted.

The Small Arms and Light Weapons Exception

The arms embargo currently in place could also be extended to cover small arms and light weapons (SALW) sales to North Korea. The SALW exception was introduced in Resolution 1874 (2009). That resolution expanded the partial arms embargo introduced three years earlier to ban trade with North Korea in all arms and related material and services. The one exception was that countries would still be able to sell SALW and “related material” to North Korea provided they offered five days advance notice of the sale to the UN Security Council. No such notification has ever known to have been given, though sales of such weapons have likely taken place. In 2012, Switzerland publicly reported $174,000 of exports to North Korea, and China declared three tons of exports of “bombs, grenades, ammunition and parts” to the DPRK that same year.

Two justifications are offered for the exception. First, its defenders allegedly argued in 2009 that the acquisition of small arms and light weapons is a legitimate North Korean defense need. Secondly, they insisted that trade in these weapons is small and their purchase by North Korea is irrelevant to the embargo’s raison d’etre: curbing the North’s nuclear and missile programs and eroding the revenue streams that facilitate them. Neither of these explanations stands up to scrutiny.


The suggestion that North Korea requires external supplies of these weapons for its own self-defense is puzzling. Small arms and light weapons would be relatively useful to combat internal threats or resist a land invasion, but the country is unlikely to face either demand in a potential military confrontation. In any potential clash with adversaries, North Korea is more likely to be in need of aircraft, naval vessels and other major systems. Yet members of the UN Security Council have shown little hesitation in forbidding the sale of these weapons to North Korea.

North Korea has four million soldiers that cannot be expected to walk around empty-handed. Yet anyone who has seen a North Korean military parade knows that the country’s soldiers are already armed. Since the 1940s, Pyongyang has worked hard to ensure that its soldiers carry small arms and operate larger systems made in North Korea. As a result, its defense industrial complex manufactures a host of small arms and light weapons, including assault rifles, light machine guns and man-portable grenade and rocket launchers. These systems may not be state-of-the-art, but Pyongyang is nevertheless assured that its forces could defend the country with more than bare hands and vicious rhetoric.

Relevance for the Sanctions Regime

The second suggestion, that North Korea’s purchases are irrelevant to curbing revenue for nuclear and missile programs, is equally misguided. Permitting the sale of SALW facilitates North Korean proliferation in two ways: by offering it technology to update its existing small arms and light weapons designs, and by giving North Korean trading firms access to foreign-made weapons whose onward sale it can broker and thus take a commission.

North Korea’s defense industry has traditionally struggled to keep pace with competitors in terms of the technology it can offer for export. While it has shown some capacity to innovate and modify weapons whose designs date from the mid to late twentieth century, much of its overseas arms market is still in “antique” systems. During the Cold War, a raft of countries acquired Soviet, Chinese or North Korean weapons systems—which, in many cases, have a similar technological heritage. By the early 1990s, those same countries could no longer count on military aid from their former patrons, and were required to pay market prices for their defense equipment. Many opted instead to extend the service lives of their aging weapons rather than pay for newer technology, but subsequently found that defense manufacturers in China or the former Soviet Union were unable or unwilling to cost-effectively provide replacements, spare parts or services for systems they produced so long ago.

One of North Korea’s contemporary market opportunities arises from this very predicament: it knows various types of Cold War-era Soviet and Chinese technology well enough to provide replacements, spare, parts and services, and can do so relatively inexpensively. This makes it even more difficult to curb demand for North Korean weapons-related products and services. Eventually, however, customers will feel compelled to phase out small arms and light weapons whose technology is in some cases approaching its fiftieth birthday, and look for modern variants. If the DPRK defense industry cannot offer up-to-date systems to satisfy the demand, it may struggle to maintain its export markets.

The continued legality of selling SALW and related material and technology to North Korea undermines this natural decline in demand. The exemption in Resolution 1874 is vague. It specifies that “material” related to small arms and light weapons is exempt, but makes no mention of whether services are. A country could therefore argue that they are legally able to sell North Korea the technology needed to make a new type of weapon in this category, which Pyongyang would, in turn, have little compunction marketing to other prospective overseas customers. The boundaries of the exemption have never been tested, but the existence of a small arms exemption and the vague wording in the resolution opens the door to that possibility.

Equally problematic for counter-proliferation is North Korea’s penchant for earning revenue by brokering the sale of arms manufactured outside of the Korean peninsula. One arms dealer familiar with North Korea, interviewed by the author for a forthcoming monograph on the North Korean arms trade, went so far as to insist that North Korea price matches its small arms with some arms manufacturers in China. That way, if an overseas client places an order for small arms that Pyongyang cannot fill in a required time frame, Chinese manufacturers can plug the gap. This assertion, though unverified, merits further investigation.

North Korea’s previous dealings with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) offers a more concrete example of the brokering services that the country’s arms dealers offer foreign clients. In 2009, Sri Lanka’s Defense Secretary explained LTTE weapons procurement to then-US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Robert Blake, stating that “the shipments originated in North Korea, and usually contained Chinese-origin goods.” It is not clear what class of weapons these shipments included, or whether they continued after June 2009 in breach of Resolution 1874.

These anecdotes suggest that North Korean arms dealers may have made the very sort of revenue that sanctions were designed to impede by selling Chinese small arms and light weapons to foreign clients. Such trades are already illegal under the current UN embargo, and both North Korea and its client would be would be in breach of UN resolutions for doing so. However, as it stands, China (or any other source country) does not bear any responsibility for initially transferring the weapons to North Korea.

Needed Changes

The next time North Korea conducts a nuclear or long-range missile or space launch vehicle test, nations represented on the Security Council will again grapple for new ways to strengthen the sanctions regime against Pyongyang. Efforts should be made to show the facilitators of North Korean proliferation activity that their actions have not gone unnoticed.

There is abundant evidence to support new additions to the sanctions list. Particular efforts should be made to target the “trusted partners” who act as middlemen in sanctions-busting transactions, demonstrating consequences to their continued involvement with Pyongyang’s illicit activity.

Similarly, as North Korea does not need foreign SALW for its defense, the Security Council should end the exemption for sales of this class of weaponry to Pyongyang. The provision permits North Korea’s defense industry to access newer technology that it can incorporate into its defense export catalog, and to offer brokering services for weapons it cannot manufacture locally—all without repercussions for the country or entity that is the initial source of the weaponry.

North Korea is a shrewd proliferator. It has had decades to adapt to national and international restrictions on its trade, and it is known to actively exploit blind spots, loopholes or grey areas in international sanctions regimes. The Security Council should therefore do its utmost to ensure that those which remain are eliminated.


[1] Leader (Hong Kong) International, listed in early 2013, is the only non-North Korean-controlled company to have been sanctioned by the UN.

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