Rethinking Sanctions Against North Korea: Strategic Shifts and their Implications

Throughout the past two decades, many discussions and publications on current affairs in North Korea have had the theme of “sanctions” at their core. Regardless of whether the topic was denuclearization, regime stability, humanitarian assistance or economic reform, they inevitably arrived at a point when either lifting or tightening sanctions was suggested as a solution, or when sanctions were identified as being a major restraining factor for trade, investment or even humanitarian assistance. Apart from future-oriented debates, much of what has been observable in North Korea’s economic development and foreign policy has been interpreted through the lens of sanctions, with conclusions differing on whether things happened because of or despite them.

The seismic shift in international relations since Russia’s attack on Ukraine still needs to be understood in all its complexity. But already at this early point, it is very likely to require a substantial redesign of many North Korea-related debates—those related to sanctions in particular.

This article will focus on five theses:

  1. The United Nations (UN) Security Council will be less relevant; new sanctions will be mostly bilateral.
  2. Russia could use North Korea as a political tool against the US and its regional allies.
  3. China’s position will become even more decisive for the success or failure of sanctions.
  4. North Korea’s regional geopolitical power will increase.
  5. Sanctions evasion will become easier for North Korea.

The implications of these events are far-reaching if they were to become reality. Some will be discussed at the end of this article.

The UN Security Council Will be Less Relevant; New Sanctions Will be Mostly Bilateral

The term “sanctions” usually refers to what Baldwin defined as “negative sanctions,” and as “actual or threatened punishments.” In international relations, such punishments can be issued by either single or groups of states. The former is relatively easy and only requires one national authority—a leader or a collective, such as a parliament—to act. Getting groups of states to agree on sanctions is more complicated, and becomes harder the larger and more diverse the group is. It is a matter of definition as to whether sanctions issued by a handful of allies are seen as truly multilateral, or only as a sum of similar bilateral sanctions. However, multilateral sanctions, in a broader sense, are typically issued in the name of the international community and require authorization by a formal institution or an international organization.

In the case of North Korea, this role has been played by the UN Security Council (UNSC), which, despite urgent demands for reform, has been described as: “the international community’s principal organ for peacekeeping and conflict management.” As of May 2022, the UNSC has unanimously passed a total of nine major sanctions resolutions against North Korea since 2006, the year of the country’s first nuclear test.

This unanimity has been remarkable. In the past two decades, neither Russia nor China, both permanent members of the UNSC, have exercised their right to veto sanctions resolutions against North Korea. However, this exceptional situation might come to a sooner-than-expected end.

At least one of the so-called “P5” is likely to exercise its right to veto more actively going forward. As a result of its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has become the subject of diplomatic isolation and massive economic sanctions, while the US is openly providing military support to Kyiv. The US and Russia are now foes again. As such, it is highly unlikely that Moscow will continue to provide a multilateral blessing to what has essentially been a bilateral US policy. In case Pyongyang decides to conduct a nuclear test or any other action that Washington regards as a provocation, it is quite probable that Russia will not just abstain, but go a step further and actively veto any new UNSC sanctions resolution against North Korea.

Russia Could Use North Korea as a Political Tool Against the US and its Regional Allies

In addition to vetoing UNSC sanctions resolutions, it is possible that Russia will try to use North Korea more actively to challenge the US in East Asia. American troops, missile defense systems and intelligence installations in South Korea and Japan are close to strategic Russian assets in the country’s Far East region. North Korean demands for troop withdrawal from South Korea or for the cancellation of US-ROK joint military exercises will receive more backing from Moscow than has previously been the case.

Moreover, Russia could try to use open support of the regime in Pyongyang as a way to offer itself as an alternative ally to other countries that feel challenged by the United States, thus essentially returning to a policy of camp creation that occurred during the Cold War.[1] Even the return and expansion of joint military maneuvers between Russian and North Korean militaries are not unthinkable.

Informal discussions that the author had with Russian experts in April 2022 implied that Moscow is still opposed to a nuclear North Korea. This could potentially destabilize the region, because it could theoretically pose a military threat to Russia. It could also trigger a nuclear arms race that in the end would equip Russia’s rivals, such as Japan, with nuclear weapons. Furthermore, from a global perspective, a nuclear North Korea could challenge Russia’s privileged position as one of the very few members of the nuclear club. However, considering the many unexpected decisions made by Moscow recently, and assuming that the North Korean nuclear program is not at the top of President Putin’s current list of priorities, it cannot be assumed that Russia will oppose Pyongyang’s ambitions too energetically.

China’s Position Will Become Even More Decisive for the Success or Failure of Sanctions

Probably the most significant among the currently unknown consequences of the Ukraine invasion is the position that China will take towards North Korea sanctions. In the past years, the seriousness of China’s commitment to implementing sanctions against North Korea has been frequently discussed. However, Beijing has, like Moscow, so far refrained from disregarding and violating UNSC sanctions openly and officially.

It is well possible that this restraint will be maintained for the time being, as China will see no need to unnecessarily expose itself to international criticism now that international and US attention is conveniently focused on Russia. However, there is little reason to expect that what Deng Xiaoping called “hide your strength and bide your time” will continue forever. Especially since the emergence of Xi Jinping as China’s leader, predictions about an end to that policy have become frequent. Hence, it is not unthinkable that strategists in Beijing will decide that with international attention focused elsewhere, now might be a good time to take the next step. If this is the case, Beijing will openly support Russia in its confrontation with the US, criticize Washington for its imperial ambitions and efforts at destabilizing East Asia, and relinquish its tacit support for North Korean sanctions.

Such a decision would have a huge effect even if Russia had already decided not to abide by UNSC sanctions resolutions against North Korea. Russia shares less than 20 kilometers of a direct land border with North Korea. It only has one modernized railway line leading into the North Korean city and Special Economic Zone of Rasŏn, and a ship from Vladivostok must travel approximately 200 kilometers to reach the port there. Under these conditions, Russia could indeed easily become an important supplier of resources as well as military technology and hardware, and it could significantly reduce the current economic pressure on the regime in Pyongyang, but it would not be able to give North Korea all it needs.

China’s potential, however, is much larger. China shares more than 1,200 km of land border with North Korea, with many bridges and roads having been modernized in the past years, including those between Dandong and Sinŭiju, Tumen and Namyang, and Hunchun and Rasŏn. It has a railway line connecting Beijing and Pyongyang, and the northern part of the Yellow Sea is an inland sea for both countries. China could absorb almost any quantity of North Korean exports and excess labor, and cover all needs for finance, high-tech inputs, producer goods, consumer goods, and technology.

Therefore, while Russia’s potential as an economic partner is limited, North Korea having China openly on its side would mean no more worries about being sanctioned by third countries.

North Korea’s Regional Geopolitical Power Will Increase

North Korea’s strong economic dependency on China is not a new phenomenon. In fact, China’s share in North Korea’s foreign trade had surpassed 80 percent already in 2010.[2] This reality obviously contradicts the autarky goals of Pyongyang’s leadership. It could be argued that the new situation described above would even increase this dependency and thereby further limit the scope of North Korea’s actions.

However, past experience suggests that this will not necessarily be the case. North Korea could, on the contrary, emerge as a very decisive player with significant leeway for action, reminding of what Oscar Wilde, albeit in a different context, famously called “tyranny of the weak over the strong.” The Sino-Soviet rivalry of the late 1950s is only one such example. Until the age of perestroika and glasnost began in the 1980s, Pyongyang had been able to keep the influence of its socialist partners at bay, and avoided joining both the military alliance of the Warsaw Pact and the Comecon economic alliance while it managed to benefit especially from the latter . What is more, Kim Il Sung made his allies support policies that they actually disagreed with.[3]

As a de facto nuclear power, North Korea will find it even easier this time to maximize the benefits that come from being part of an alliance with China and Russia. And once again, it will keep its own contributions and commitment to a minimum.

Moreover, North Korea’s power in bilateral relations with its major opponents, such as South Korea, Japan and the United States, will increase significantly if it has to be treated as a member of a camp. In this context, the practical meaning—whether a military conflict with North Korea will trigger a war with China and Russia—of the two friendship agreements that concluded in 1961 will have to be re-evaluated even further than was done after the renewal of North Korea’s friendship treaty with China in 2021.

As a result, it will become harder for the West to coerce Pyongyang. In addition to this, a more proactive policy by North Korea that includes military and diplomatic initiatives can be expected.

Sanctions Evasion Will Become Easier for North Korea

In light of what has been mentioned above, the evasion of sanctions will not be much of a concern for North Korea anymore. With Russia and China on its side, it will not need imports from countries that might still be willing to abide by UNSC resolutions, and it will not need these countries as markets for its exports. However, even if such a need arose, re-routing trade through any of the two allies would pose much less of a challenge than arranging direct illegal transfers. The same applies to access to financial resources for investments or payments, which had once hit a nerve in Pyongyang, as demonstrated by the 2005 Banco Delta Asia (BDA) case.

Open Questions and Implications

We are far away from fully understanding the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, especially since that process is still ongoing, and a new equilibrium has not been reached yet. A final evaluation of the impact of the new realities is therefore not possible yet.

It is also far from certain that Russia will retain its current status as a pariah state forever. Once the conflict in Ukraine has been settled one way or the other, Moscow will try to restore its damaged relationship with the West. If that happens, North Korea might become a bargaining chip, and Russia could offer to join the international sanctions regime again. The North Koreans haven’t forgotten what they regard as Moscow’s betrayal in the early 1990s, when Russia, just like China, established diplomatic relations with South Korea and stopped delivering key goods, including oil, at the previous favorable conditions. Especially Soviet oil had for decades been a key input for North Korea’s agriculture and its sudden unavailability was a major contributor to the famine of the mid-1990s.[4]

For that reason, it is likely that analysts in Pyongyang will, despite many new opportunities, suggest a cautious approach to their leadership. Past experience suggests that North Korea will try to reap as many short-term benefits as possible, and try to avoid making long-term commitments.

If the five points as discussed above indeed become reality, North Korea’s opponents including South Korea, Japan and the United States would need to acknowledge that multilateral sanctions have de facto become obsolete. This will not be an easy step, but it will be necessary to enable them to develop alternative policies to realize their goals.

The field of North Korean studies must be ready to react to this demand, and should better sooner rather than later focus on designing and discussing alternative policies in the absence of multilateral sanctions. New ways for achieving a set of objectives that remain largely unchanged have to be found. Depending on the respective players and their preferences, this includes improving the humanitarian and human rights situation in North Korea, regional stability, peace and security, and, eventually, a reunified Korea.

North Korean strategists, too, will be busy evaluating the new situation and its consequences, and will be developing ideas for how their leadership could best react. This process will not be open to the public, but its outcomes will be. Thus, it is worth watching for related announcements by the leader at major events, and to interpret North Korean actions in the military, diplomatic and economic fields as indicators of possible new strategic decisions.

In any case, it is very likely that the consequences of the Ukraine crisis will politically strengthen the current regime in Pyongyang and reduce current internal and external pressure on them to introduce economic reforms.

  1. [1]

    In fact, this seems to be happening already. The Russian Newspaper “Kommersant” reported about a meeting on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Russian Federation Security Council on May 18 to turn it into an „anti-Western project“ to help protect its members against the threat from the United States. Diplomats of 96 countries were present, most from the previous Soviet Union, the Near East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. „Проект «Анти-Запад» // Как Совбез России боролся за умы дипломатов из сотни стран“ [Project Anti-West: How the Russian Security Council fought for the minds of diplomats from a hundred countries],

  2. [2]

    Korea Trade and Investment Promotion Agency,“2010 북한의 대외무역동향“, KOTRA, 2011.

  3. [3]

    A case in point is the Juche (Chuch’e) ideology. Its openly nationalist spirit was not compatible with orthodox Marxist-Leninist class-based ideas of world revolution. Nevertheless, critical research, including that by a leading North Korea analyst at East Berlin’s Humboldt-University, were kept confidential (based on conversations of the author with Professor Helga Picht). Succession of Kim Il Sung by his son Kim Jong Il, announced in 1980, had also been seen very skeptically by key socialist partners, but led to no consequences.

  4. [4]

    Hazel Smith, “Hungry for Peace: International Security, Humanitarian Assistance, and Social Change in North Korea. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2005.

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