Imagining a Future for the DPRK Panel of Experts Monitoring Regime

The Russian veto to end the mandate of the United Nation’s (UN) Panel of Experts on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) on April 30, 2024 has been widely commented upon in recent weeks. I was the coordinator of the Panel for two years, leaving at the end of its last annual mandate in April 2023, and I would like to add my own views.

The demise of the Panel actually underscores the importance of continued monitoring of DPRK sanctions violations while giving an opportunity to improve that function. I believe that monitoring of UN sanctions could best be conducted, paradoxically, from outside the UN system itself, as the political deadlock and bureaucratic timidity at the UN in New York makes genuinely independent and impartial sanctions monitoring impossible.

In looking forward to any successor, we should look at both how the Panel succeeded and where (and why) it fell short before considering what else might be necessary to ensure that this important monitoring mission might continue.

Lessons Learned From the Panel

The Panel was introduced by resolution in 2009 to serve the UN’s 1718 Sanctions Committee. This was to provide biannual reporting of sanctions regime breaches and recommend how UN Member States might close those loopholes. However, particularly in recent years, many of the institutional structures established to enforce the regime have largely collapsed through political sabotage and neglect.

First, the 1718 Committee has become utterly toothless. Although it does perform a useful function in efficiently approving humanitarian exemptions to the sanctions regime, the Committee has not actually taken any concrete action on any Panel recommendation relating to sanctions implementation since 2017.

This is because members of the Committee simply and always reflect their positions expressed in the UN Security Council (UNSC). Despite having voted in favor of the sanctions in place, Russia and China have demonstrated no interest in maintaining or enforcing DPRK sanctions since at least 2019, while the United States, the United Kingdom and France, by contrast, have unsuccessfully sought to tighten sanctions in response to the DPRK’s increasing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities. Without the consensus of all 15 of its members, the Committee can take no action. At a UN level, therefore, literally nothing has happened in response to a Panel report or Panel recommendations.

Second, the Panel itself is weakly administered by the UN Secretariat. Like the UNSC and the 1718 Committee, the Panel is bound by rules of consensus—unless all the experts agree, it cannot publish anything. But, the Panel is also supposed to operate independently and impartially. The majority of the experts do indeed rise above national interests to produce objective analysis. However, these rules effectively allow the tyranny of the minority, specifically the ability of Russian and Chinese experts to veto the publication of individual investigations and remove or undermine assessment and analysis with which Beijing and Moscow might not be content. The UN Secretariat, which employs and pays the experts as contractors, has done nothing to enforce this contractual impartiality, allowing Russia and China to have their way.

Third, the Panel has long been under-resourced and ill-equipped to perform its function. Its IT infrastructure is obsolete, preventing even the most basic analytical investigation. Furthermore, it is staffed by diplomats and other relatively senior former government officials from a set group of UN Member States rather than by trained and objective investigators whose nationality is unimportant.

Even with these problems, over the years, the Panel has produced valuable reporting that has served as a useful repository of information regarding sanctions evaders and their methodologies. I would draw attention particularly to the following:

  • Although the Panel’s reports probably did not add greatly to the understanding of developments in the DPRK for countries with a strategic interest in the Korean Peninsula, it was a regular and reliable resource for the vast majority of UN Member States, and the only means by which they could understand their detailed responsibilities and obligation under the sanctions resolutions. The Panel and its reports played an important role in improving customs and export control mechanisms in many States.
  • Unlike at the UN level (and for the most part at Member State levels), the commercial world was eager to take action on every detail contained in the reports. Information on companies, vessels and individuals involved in sanctions evasion, as well as bank accounts, contact details and the like—all carefully researched and verified by the Panel—was used by banks, insurance companies and due diligence departments, to take concrete action against sanctions evasion. Although largely unseen, these actions played an important role in imposing real-world consequences for those engaged in sanctions evasion.

Toward the Next Monitoring Regime

I would argue that this proven value of sanctions monitoring, the decay of UN systems themselves and the political stagnation that accrues from the UN’s outdated rules suggest, perversely, that UN sanctions would be best monitored from outside the UN system. Allowing those who have no interest in maintaining the sanctions regime to have a decisive say in monitoring them is a mistake. By taking the Panel’s monitoring role out of the UN system, it would be possible to improve the objective value of the monitoring effort.

So, what would a new DPRK sanctions monitoring body require?

  • The right investigators: These individuals would have the skills necessary for open-source and more sensitive investigations. They would be contractually tied to objectivity and independence (and probably some sort of internal agreement to recuse themselves from investigations involving their own countries). A multinational team would be best, but reflecting the nations on the UNSC is not an effective means of ensuring impartiality or competence. So long as they are good at what they do, the experts can come from anywhere. Additionally, they should have the right IT, imagery, databases and analytical tools, none of which come cheap.
  • Intelligence support: The Panel has relied on the provision of sanitized intelligence material as a starting point for many investigations; that material has been carefully corroborated and subjected to high evidential standards before publication in the Panel’s reports. In recent years, however, contributing States have been less and less inclined to share this valuable material with the Panel because the Panel has been prevented from using the best of this material by Russian and Chinese experts objecting to its content. The new Panel’s membership should, therefore, be trusted to handle sensitive material carefully, as well as be able to independently corroborate that material.
  • Dedicated legal support: Its status as a UN body working on a politically sensitive portfolio has largely shielded the Panel, its members and its investigations from the vexatious attention of commercial lawyers acting on behalf of sanctions evaders. In order to regularly name individuals and entities involved in sanctions evasion without wasting its own time in commercial courts, any new sanctions monitoring body operating outside the UN would require some serious—and expensive—legal help to prevent it from becoming swamped by legal hounding from sanctions breakers.
  • A flexible and responsive reporting schedule: Perhaps a quarterly annual report supplemented by “incident reports” as they happen would be a good reporting pace and method. In addition, this body should be able to draw on and republish other work by independent think tanks and journalists, with expert commentary, in order to maximize the efforts of others. There is a great deal of impartial reporting of DPRK sanctions evasion that this body could centrally assess and help

Of course, the Panel’s authority as a UN body would be lost, and there is a risk that its “impartiality” would be seen as having been lost, too. The administrative, technical and legal support the new body would require suggests to me that it might be best nested within an international organization. But it is essential, of course, that wherever it is, the “new Panel” would be independent and not subject to influence. Of course, any new body would be vulnerable to accusations of partiality—Russia’s recent veto was partly based on just such a fatuous claim about the Panel, even within the UN system. No one—State, entity or individual—would be obliged to help the new monitoring body, and some (particularly those named in its reports) would be inclined to question its independence.

The “right of reply” currently exercised by the Panel—which means that individuals, entities and States involved in sanctions evasion are offered an opportunity to defend or explain themselves prior to publication—is a good practice and should be retained. But actually, neither sanctions evaders themselves, nor the States involved in facilitating sanctions evasion, ever responded helpfully or constructively to any request for information from the Panel during my time of service. I strongly believe that the accuracy, reliability and quality of the new body’s reporting would be most important in relatively quickly building its reputation for independence.

Finally, any attempt to reconstitute the work of the Panel elsewhere, particularly if it requires considerable resources at a politically uncertain juncture, might benefit from a restatement of the aims of sanctions against the DPRK. In short, those interested in maintaining sanctions should be able to describe clearly what they are there to achieve. I would note that Russian (and Chinese) complaints about the sanctions and the Panel do, as ever, contain warped elements of truth, twisted beyond recognition to justify their egregious behavior. For example, it is true, as Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia claimed, that the Panel relied upon Western information in its reports. However, not only did the Panel corroborate that information itself, rather than simply regurgitating it, but it also repeatedly asked Russia and China for their own information and analysis—practical and constructive assistance which neither ever offered. Any ambiguity surrounding the goal of sanctions against the DPRK will only subject the sanctions regime to attack from these two countries in particular, and other States potentially sympathetic to the DPRK.


Effective monitoring only really pays its way if there is a commitment to implementation and enforcement on the basis of that monitoring. With neither Russia nor China interested in either, this remains a fundamental weakness in the UN sanctions regime, wherever and whoever does the monitoring. That said, to allow the Panel to disappear at Russian demand, with China smirking in silent approval, would be a meek surrender. It is critically important to continue to cast light into dark corners. The DPRK’s WMD development—an internationally destabilizing phenomenon that even Moscow and Beijing may live to regret—is enabled by sanctions evasion, and it is still necessary to expose both it and its perpetrators, even if it cannot be stopped.

Stay informed about our latest
news, publications, & uploads:
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea