After Russia’s Veto: The Future of the Sanctions Regime Against North Korea

(Source: United Nations Photo Flickr)

On March 28, 2024 and due to a veto cast by Russia, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) failed to adopt a resolution to extend the mandate of the Panel of Experts (PoE), which was established pursuant to UNSC resolution (UNSCR) 1718 (2006) to monitor (UN member states’ compliance with and enforcement of) the UN sanctions regime on North Korea. Among the five permanent and 10 non-permanent members of the UNSC, Russia was the only country that rejected the annual renewal of the multinational PoE, as China abstained. Russia’s veto will effectively end the mandate for the PoE, which will expire at the end of April 2024.

However, this is merely the latest development in the successive weakening of the UN sanctions regime against North Korea. Moscow (and at least in part Beijing) have already stopped complying with many of the sanctions provisions mandated by the UNSCRs and have actively blocked new UNSCRs in response to repeated North Korean ballistic missile tests since 2022. By ending the mandate of the PoE as well as calling for a sunset clause for the existing resolutions, Russia now appears to be taking concrete actions to permanently dismantle the UN sanctions regime.

This decision marks a significant blow to international efforts monitoring and addressing North Korea’s nuclear and military ambitions, and highlights the need for a new approach that involves key member states and like-minded partners coordinating their efforts outside the UNSC.

The Continuous Weakening of the UN Sanctions Regime Since 2018

Ever since North Korea’s first nuclear weapon test in 2006, sanctions have been one of, if not the central mechanism that the international community has used in its efforts to deal with the country’s nuclear and military ambitions. While numerous countries imposed their own unilateral sanctions on North Korea, the main theatre for the imposition of sanctions since 2006 has been the UNSC, which unanimously adopted ten UNSCRs between 2006 and 2017. Despite disagreements between UNSC members (e.g., regarding the underlying logic of sanctions and their respective reach and clout), until 2017, the UNSC, including Russia and China, demonstrated overall support for the imposition of increasingly tough sanctions on North Korea.

Since December 2017, however, no new sanctions have been adopted through the UNSC. There are two main reasons for this. At first, it was to provide space for diplomacy in 2018 and 2019. However, by the time the diplomacy phase ended in 2019, far-reaching geopolitical shifts were already underway, fueled first by the deepening strategic rivalry between the US and China and then exacerbated by Russia’s war against Ukraine. As these developments had a direct impact on Beijing’s and Moscow’s strategic considerations and priorities in terms of aligning more closely with North Korea, the geopolitical shifts exacerbated the discord among UNSC members on the North Korea issue. In May 2022, Russia and China for the first time vetoed a US-drafted UNSC resolution to strengthen sanctions on North Korea following its repeated ballistic missile tests in violation of previous UN resolutions, thus effectively paralyzing the Council well before the recent Russian veto.

Notable Shifts Away From the UNSC

Russia’s March 2024 veto was a tangible step toward fully undermining the UN sanctions regime against North Korea and has far-reaching consequences. Most obviously, it brings an end to a crucial institution tasked with supporting the 1718 Sanctions Committee, whose mandate has continuously expanded over the years, in monitoring compliance with and identifying loopholes in one of the most complex sanctions regimes currently in place.[1]  According to Aaron Arnold, Russia’s veto not only means that “countries [will] lose access to authoritative sources of information, but it is likely that the sanctions against North Korea will now persist in a zombie-like state—neither updated nor monitored.” However, while the PoE’s dissolution naturally hampers the Sanctions Committee’s task, the 1718 Committee itself remains in place and its mandate remains intact, as was stressed by its current Chair, Switzerland’s U.N. Ambassador Pascale Baeriswyl. To bridge the loss of the PoE in the short term, he appealed to countries individually or collectively to now support the Committee with information “to the best of their abilities.”

Ultimately, the weakening of the UNSC’s sanctions regime against North Korea, which has begun well before Russia’s recent veto, means that it will now fall even more on key member states like the US, Japan, and South Korea, as well as other like-minded partners such as the EU and the G7, to better coordinate intelligence, counter-proliferation efforts, and relevant legislation to enforce and monitor restrictive measures. Certainly, without Russian or Chinese support and compliance, this is a major challenge. However, the central theater of sanctions has already begun to shift outside the UNSC.

After Russia and China blocked a US-sponsored UNSCR in 2022 in response to repeated North Korean ballistic missile tests, individual states and the EU not only resumed the imposition of (unilateral) sanctions against North Korea, but a group of like-minded countries increasingly coordinated their respective activities. As a result, a “new” actor constellation emerged that is taking the lead in imposing new sanctions on North Korea. This actor constellation includes individual states such as the US, Japan, South Korea and Australia as well as groups of states such as the EU and the G7.

Numerous sanctions adopted against the DPRK since 2022 were imposed in unison among the like-minded countries. For instance, after Pyongyang launched a reconnaissance satellite in November 2023, the US, Japan, South Korea, and Australia collectively and consecutively imposed unilateral sanctions on North Korea. Although coordinated, unilateral sanctions impositions by South Korea, the US, and Japan already occurred before, e.g., in December 2022 and September 2023, the inclusion of Australia marks the first occurrence of this extended collaboration. While the EU, through two additional sanctions decisions in April and December 2022, respectively, already added 16 individuals and eight entities to its sanctions list, in February 2024, Brussels blacklisted North Korea’s defense chief over arms transfers to Russia while the European Council also designated the DPRK missile bureau, among others. Overall, a range of technically unilateral, yet increasingly coordinated sanctions have been imposed since 2022, many specifically addressing North Korea’s cyber activities as one of its crucial sanctions evasion mechanisms together with illegal ship-to-ship transfers.[2]

Within the new actor constellation, the G7 has already emerged as a crucial player, repeatedly voicing its frustration with the UNSC’s inaction by attesting a “stark contrast between the frequency of North Korea’s repeated blatant violations of UNSC [Resolutions] and the UN Security Council’s corresponding inaction because of some members’ obstruction.” Sanctions, according to the 2023 G7 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting Communiqué, must be “fully and scrupulously implemented by all states and remain in place for as long as North Korea’s WMD and ballistic missile programs exist.” The group specifically called for greater international coordination to counter North Korea’s malicious cyber activities, which have become a main target of the latest sanctions adopted by numerous states. Given the prospect of a dismembered UN sanctions regime, the task of monitoring, designing and enforcing future sanctions against North Korea will most likely gravitate toward the like-minded nations of the G7, although these decisions certainly will not have the same authority and reach as the UNSCRs.

Improved Coordination and Practical Cooperation Are Required

Given the UNSC’s paralysis and the realistic prospect of a collapsing UNSC sanctions regime, like-minded countries must accelerate their activities to improve coordination and practical cooperation on their respective sanctions activities on North Korea. While recent actions illustrate that information sharing among like-minded partners has improved considerably, much more needs to be done to ensure comprehensive coordination in the designing, enforcement and monitoring of new sanctions, as well as closing existing gaps in coordinating responses to emerging security threats from North Korea.

The US-ROK Working Group on the DPRK’s Cyber Threat, established in 2022, South Korea’s admission to the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in 2022, and the recently launched US-ROK task force aimed at preventing North Korea from procuring illicit oil and imposing coordinated sanctions by the US and the ROK on individuals and entities based in Russia, China and the UAE accused of channeling funds to Pyongyang’s weapons programs are crucial endeavors in this regard.

There is also a need to move cooperation on such matters as North Korea’s cyber threats from dialogue to practical cooperation among like-minded countries. Aside from improved intelligence-sharing, this could include joint tabletop exercises involving government officials, experts and representatives from various industries, mimicking real cybersecurity incidents to improve resilience against North Korea’s cyber activities. In addition to improving government-to-government collaboration, bringing academics and industry experts into a wider coordination process will be important. North Korea’s cyber-espionage operations specifically targeting international experts highlight the central role non-governmental actors play in both implementing national cyber resilience and evaluating national cybersecurity and geopolitical strategies.

In the case of the EU, internal administrative hurdles need to be removed, which can impede efficient and effective cooperation with like-minded countries seeking to coordinate their sanctions activities vis-à-vis North Korea, and prevent rapid responses to evolving security threats. In the current system, in addition to structural provisions (such as appeal deadlines), unilateral sanctions must be introduced by one or more EU member states before they can then be discussed and ultimately implemented in Brussels. Greater efforts need to be made to simplify and streamline these processes.


There is no doubt that the dissolution of the PoE is regrettable, and that it will further the dysfunctionality of the UNSC sanctions regime against North Korea. It is now mainly upon the states of the emerging “coalition of the willing” to enhance coordination and cooperation outside the UNSC. In this regard, it seems most plausible that the task of monitoring, designing and enforcing sanctions against North Korea will increasingly gravitate to the like-minded nations of the G7. Although G7 decisions certainly do not have the same authority and reach as UNSCRs, Victor Cha and Ellen Kim rightly noted that proactive coordination of policies among an expanded G7 membership that could include like-minded countries such as South Korea, Australia or Spain, among others, may be an imperfect but still effective substitute. While US leadership will be crucial, states such as South Korea can play a much more significant role regarding the future of the international sanctions regime on North Korea.

  1. [1]

    In specific, the PoE is mandated with providing crucial assistance to the 1718 Sanctions Committee as well as UN member states by conducting investigations particularly on incidents of non-compliance, gather information and provide guidance on the implementation of sanctions and prepare reports and recommendations.

  2. [2]

    It has to be noted that all the sanctions adopted since 2022 have been additional designations, and as such no new structural sanctions have been imposed on North Korea since 2017. While this seems rather lackluster, given the DPRK’s dramatic military build-up, the PoE has repeatedly called for such additional, targeted designations.

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