Maximum pressure. That’s the stated U.S. policy towards North Korea. In addition to tough talk and joint military exercises with partners in the region, this policy relies on sanctions to put economic pressure on North Korea.
This pressure, however, is limited by North Korea’s own capabilities. The country has had years to refine tactics with which to evade sanctions and to secure the capabilities necessary to indigenously advance its nuclear programme.
To be clear, sanctions are not new. Though the United States has its own sanctions on North Korea and entities operating on its behalf, the real strength of the pressure campaign comes from the sanctions regime endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. That regime was put in place in 2006 and was initially focused on direct contributors to North Korea’s nuclear programme. Today, however, United Nations sanctions have grown to cover not only components and technologies that could be used in a nuclear weapon, but also vast swathes of North Korean imports and exports.
For years, these sanctions failed to deny North Korea a path to nuclear weapons. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s apparent willingness to negotiate on the subject of his country’s nuclear programme may suggest that the pressure campaign is making progress. That’s at least the view espoused by the American leadership. President Donald J. Trump, via Twitter, greeted North Korea’s decision to suspend missile testing and close a nuclear test site as ‘big progress’. The real nature of these concessions, however, is questionable. North Korea hadn’t tested a missile in almost five months when it announced its freeze in testing and the nuclear test site to be closed may have already been damaged by a collapse in September.
So we don’t actually know whether sanctions are achieving their aims. But perhaps the grimmer possibility is that we don’t know how effective they can actually be. The deception tactics adopted by North Korea and its own indigenous capabilities limit the extent to which sanctions can get North Korea to abandon its nuclear programme.
North Korea’s evasive practices have long allowed the country to maintain and operate expansive business networks in contravention of United Nations sanctions. Front companies have facilitated everything from the sale of arms-related materiel out of Malaysia to the smuggling of luxury goods. The combined revenue from such illicit activities is substantial: the DPRK is estimated to have earned $200 million from illicit trade in 2017 alone.
Moreover, North Korean illicit networks have had plenty of time to hone their skills even as governments around the world have scrambled to enforce ever-expanding UN sanctions. UN Security Council resolutions require member states to submit reports on their implementation of sanctions. That just 44 countries have done so for those imposed in December provides one—albeit imperfect—barometer for the challenge countries face in keeping pace with UN sanctions. And this metric fails to account for the actual efficacy of those countries’ implementation efforts. The United Nations Panel of Experts that monitors sanctions implementation allege numerous instances of sanctions evasion even in countries filing implementation reports.
To be sure, there have been good examples of sanctions enforcement: Egyptian authorities acting on information from the United States seized a shipment of rocket-propelled grenades worth roughly $23 million in 2016. Australian authorities, in 2017, arrested an individual attempting to sell millions of dollars worth of coal and missile technology on behalf of North Korea.
But individual enforcement successes should not be mistaken for comprehensive sanctions implementation. And the ability to detect and prevent illicit activity in one sector does not necessarily transfer to others. Different mechanisms are needed, after all, to detect and prevent the sale of tangible commodities (think coal or iron) than for services in fields like construction or finance.
Even if sanctions were universally implemented and enforced, their impact would still be limited by North Korea’s own indigenous capabilities. The country has shown itself capable of producing equipment to advance its nuclear and missile programs despite restrictions on the import of necessary components.
In 2017 alone, North Korea—according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s North Korea missile test database—conducted 20 missile launches, 14 of which were successful. That’s a success rate of 70%. And those successful tests included that of the Hwasong-15, a missile believed capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the continental United States. Yes, North Korea’s missile program is based on a hodgepodge of technologies from other countries. And yes, North Korea’s first short-range ballistic missile was a variant of Soviet designs. But North Korea’s recent advances, despite sanctions, have shown the strength of the country’s missile program on its own qualifications.
These qualitative gains are accompanied by attempts to increase the quantity of North Korea’s nuclear warheads and delivery systems. The country appears to be promoting the indigenous production of missile components and fuel. It can independently produce transport-erectors and mobile-erector-launchers, vehicles designed to—respectively—move and launch missiles. Perhaps more dire, North Korea’s arsenal of nuclear warheads is predicted to grow from 10-20 at present to up to 100 by 2020.
North Korea’s indigenous nuclear development provides compelling counterpoint to President Trump’s repeated claims that North Korean resolve would dissipate if China and Russia just got serious on sanctions.
None of this is to say that sanctions are not a tool worth using. Sanctions, particularly when combined with credible diplomatic outreach, present an avenue in which to manage escalating tensions while averting military conflict. And there are tangible and immediate steps that can be taken to increase their impact. Still, it’s important that sanctions not be seen as a one-stop shop to ending North Korea’s nuclear program. That view—and the underlying belittling of North Korean capability—carries with it significant risk.
Cameron Trainer is a Research Associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. He is a graduate of the University of St Andrews, where he studied International Relations and Russian.
Image credit: Arirang Mass Games, Wikimedia Commons.