UN Panel of Experts Report on North Korea: More Advanced Weaponry, Better Sanctions Evasion

North Korean ballistic missile, North Korea Victory Day parade, 2013. Courtesy of Stefan Krasowski/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

The North Korean regime is evading sanctions at a faster rate than the international community is able to tighten the sanctions regime.

Earlier this month, the UN Panel of Experts on North Korea (PoE) released their annual report on sanctions implementation. Issued every year since 2012, the reports have been an invaluable resource, shedding light on how North Korea evades international sanctions. This year, even with the adverse impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, appears no different.

The report is extremely detailed, extending to over 400 pages including annexes, and highlights two key points that are interlinked: a weapons programme that is increasingly sophisticated, and sanctions evasion activity that is growing in scale. In several reported cases, the sanctions evasion activity directly funds entities linked to the weapons programme.

Weapons Programme Development

On 25 March 2021, North Korea test-fired a new short-range ballistic missile, taking another step towards the modernisation of its missile force. Some analysts noted that the modifications to this particular system may mean that it is easier for North Korea to make the missile nuclear-capable.

The 2021 PoE report details other advancements. These include a new ‘monster’ ICBM (which is yet to be proven operational); the possibility of miniaturised nuclear warheads; and new, seemingly indigenously manufactured transporter erector launchers – all important steps in the development of North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal.

Over the past two years, the diversification and modernisation of the missile programme show that the core objective of the sanctions – to constrict North Korea’s ability to develop its nuclear weapons and missiles – is failing. But what would North Korea’s weapons programme look like if these measures were not imposed? It is not a stretch to assume that its capabilities would be far more advanced.

Yet none of the risks from North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programme have declined since the sanctions were imposed. These include an increasing nuclear and missile capability and potential proliferation activity in the Middle East and Africa, one example being the reported resumption of rocket development co-operation with Iran. Despite over 15 years of sanctions, the threats to international security remain the same.

Sanctions Evasion and Funding for the Weapons Programme

Aside from more modern techniques of revenue generation such as cyber attacks and crypto raids, a well-documented revenue generation activity is the sale of natural resources. This includes the illegal export of coal, with evidence in an annex of the latest UN PoE report suggesting coal exports have directly funded the Munitions Industry Department, the primary organ tasked with the development of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programme.

Other instances of coal exports have previously been linked directly to proliferation networks, such as Zhang Qiao, an individual allegedly involved in the Jie Shun shipment of RPGs to Egypt in 2016, who used vessels to export coal for the Korean People’s Army in 2017.

These exports are seemingly openly welcomed by China, with a reported 2.5 million tonnes of coal exported in 400 shipments from January to September 2020. These exports have been occurring since 2019, raising significant questions about the proceeds of such shipments.

Scale of Sanctions Evasion and Enforcement

So why are the sanctions not working? Research shows that lax enforcement is a core issue. Whatever one’s view on the current sanctions regime, if they are not enforced, they will not have the intended effect. They will thus become less effective measures than were agreed, and will be drawn out for longer than necessary.

This year’s UN report highlights that lack of enforcement and international action have given North Korea the impression it has a formula that is working, and it has built upon that.

Over the past two years, North Korea’s sanctions evasion activity has been left to run rampant. One example is the procurement of oil, which is capped at 500,000 barrels a year – a limit that is reported to have been violated every year since its imposition in December 2017. New tactics were introduced in 2020 to import more oil into North Korea more efficiently by using larger, foreign-flagged tankers. So far, none of these tankers have been sanctioned, detained or thoroughly investigated publicly. A recent investigation revealed vessels directly providing these tankers with oil in violation of UN Resolutions. The latest PoE report shows that more vessels have subsequently been added to the delivery roster, and North Korea may have imported eight times the allowed amount of oil in 2020. These tactics are working for the entities procuring oil for delivery to North Korea, and there have seemingly been no repercussions.

Another example is coal. China has been called out several times since 2019 for allowing North Korean-flagged vessels loaded with sanctioned coal to anchor and offload commodities in its territorial waters. This has now become the norm, so much so that such actions no longer come as a surprise – numbing the international community to the continued violation of the UN measures.

As a result, the sanctions regime has stagnated, with rifts appearing in what was once an international consensus. Russia and China have repeatedly called for sanctions relief, even though the issue at the core of the sanctions – the nuclear and ballistic missile programme – has not changed.

What To Do?

One path is to better understand the impact of the sanctions and the underlying actors at the centre of sanctions evasion. Markus Garlauskas, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, promotes the idea of a framework for assessing sanctions' effectiveness, which would be vital in deciding where to focus resources and efforts.

Another is a stronger commitment to the sanctions from member states, upping the consequences for entities that are directly facilitating sanctions evasion activity. Despite a dramatic increase in sanctions evasion activity, designations at the UN level dropped from 60 and 53 in 2017 and 2018, respectively, to 0 in 2019 and 2020. Unilateral designations have also reduced substantially. Only one vessel was designated by the US related to North Korea’s sanctions evasion in 2019, and only four in 2020, compared to over 50 shipping entities in 2018 alone. The lack of designations allows sanctions evasion networks to adopt new companies and modes of operating and places the burden on private sector companies to ensure they are not dealing with entities linked to sanctionable activity. Stronger implementation by China is also crucial, yet past experience indicates this path is unlikely.

Until there is commitment to the measures agreed and a better understanding of their effectiveness, they cannot be expected to have the intended effect. Fundamentally, sanctions are a complement to engagement and diplomacy. Yet if they are not being implemented, this does little for the hopes of future negotiations and only protracts the current policy drift.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

Joe Byrne

Research Fellow

Open Source Intelligence and Analysis (OSIA)

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