What to Know About Sanctions on North Korea
Backgrounder

What to Know About Sanctions on North Korea

World powers continue to punish North Korea with economic sanctions, but the pressure has so far failed to push Pyongyang toward denuclearization.
A woman works at a textile mill in Pyongyang, North Korea.
A woman works at a textile mill in Pyongyang, North Korea. Damir Sagolj/Reuters
Summary
  • Since 2006, the UN Security Council has passed nearly a dozen resolutions sanctioning North Korea for developing nuclear weapons and related activities. The United States and other countries have also imposed unilateral sanctions.
  • The sanctions ban the trade of weapons and military equipment, freeze the assets of people involved in the nuclear program, and restrict scientific cooperation, among other actions.
  • Sanctions have not pressured North Korea to denuclearize. Critics argue that the sanctions need stronger enforcement, hurt ordinary families instead of elites, and embolden the regime to continue nuclear development.

Introduction

World powers have pursued economic and financial sanctions on North Korea for more than a dozen years to pressure it to denuclearize. They have also deployed sanctions to punish the regime for cyberattacks, money laundering, and human rights violations.

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While these measures have exacted a heavy toll on the North Korean economy, experts say their effectiveness has been undermined by the failure of some countries to enforce them and the willingness of some companies to flout them. Even if the sanctions were tightened, however, many question whether they would achieve the desired outcome.

Why does North Korea face sanctions?

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The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has undertaken a broad range of activities over the years that has drawn international condemnation in the form of sanctions. Chief among them are the development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

North Korea’s leadership, under successive Kims, considers nuclear weapons the sole means to guarantee its survival. Pyongyang points to U.S. military bases in the region, as well as the war games the United States regularly holds with its allies, as a threat to its existence. The DPRK ratified the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1985 but withdrew in 2003, citing U.S. aggression. It carried out its first nuclear test three years later. Current leader Kim Jong-un sees nuclear weapons as “a military asset, an insurance policy, and a vast source of prestige all in one,” write Vincent Brooks and Ho Young Leem, former leaders of the Republic of Korea–U.S. Combined Forces Command, for Foreign Affairs. They say Kim has witnessed governments in Ukraine, Iraq, and Libya be overthrown after giving up their nuclear weapons and that he is determined not to make the same mistake. 

Several rounds of bilateral and multilateral negotiations on denuclearization dating back to the 1990s have failed. After the June 2018 meeting in Singapore between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un—the first summit between sitting U.S. and North Korean leaders—the United States suspended a series of high-profile military exercises with South Korea, but the declaration it signed with North Korea did not produce tangible steps for denuclearization or sanctions relief. The leaders’ second summit, in February 2019, ended early after the two sides made incompatible demands. Talks have remained stalled since, and Kim has ramped up missile testing, launching more missiles in 2022 than in any prior year. U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol have urged Pyongyang to restart talks, while also pledging to expand joint military drills.

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What are the UN sanctions?

The fifteen-member UN Security Council has passed nearly a dozen resolutions, all unanimously, condemning North Korea for its nuclear pursuits and imposing sanctions. Over time, the measures have expanded to

  • ban the trade of arms and military equipment, dual-use technologies, vehicles, industrial machinery, and metals;
  • freeze the asset of individuals involved in the country’s nuclear program;
  • ban the import of certain luxury goods;
  • ban the export of electrical equipment, coal, minerals, seafood and other food and agricultural products, wood, textiles, and stones;
  • cap North Korean labor exports;
  • cap imports of oil and refined petroleum products;
  • ban natural gas imports;
  • restrict fishing rights;
  • restrict scientific and technical cooperation with North Korea; and
  • prohibit UN members from opening North Korean bank accounts and banking offices.

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The sanctions regime does allow for humanitarian assistance.

What are the U.S. sanctions?

The United States has imposed unilateral sanctions on North Korea that restrict more economic activities and target a larger list of individuals and businesses than the UN sanctions. They are primarily designed to impede Pyongyang’s development of missile and nuclear technology, but some have come in response to North Korean cyberattacks, such as its 2014 breach of Sony’s computer systems and 2017 WannaCry ransomware attack; human rights violations; censorship; and money laundering, among other activities. Additionally, the United States has sanctioned banks, companies, and individuals outside North Korea—particularly in China and Russia—for supporting its weapons program. It has also fined companies for violating U.S. export controls.

On several occasions, the United States has partially lifted its sanctions on North Korea in exchange for a promise to freeze its nuclear program and dismantle parts of its facilities. However, Pyongyang has consistently reneged on its pledges.

The U.S. Congress passed its first statute [PDF] imposing sanctions on North Korea in 2016, adding to those that had already been levied by successive presidents. The law requires the president to sanction anyone involved in activities such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. An additional piece of legislation, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), passed in 2017, imposes further sanctions on North Korea (as well as on Iran and Russia). It prohibits certain types of U.S. assistance to foreign governments that aid North Korea. Also that year, President Trump authorized the Treasury Department to block from the U.S. financial system any foreign business or individual that facilitates trade with North Korea as part of the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign. In 2022, President Biden imposed sanctions on eight North Korean and Russian entities for their involvement in Pyongyang’s missile program. The Biden administration has promised partial sanctions relief for each step Pyongyang takes toward denuclearization.

From 1988 to 2008, the United States labeled North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism, an official designation that placed another layer of sanctions on the regime. President George W. Bush removed North Korea from the list as part of denuclearization negotiations, but in 2017, President Trump restored the designation. The move followed the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother in Malaysia and the death of Otto Warmbier, an American student who had been detained in North Korea. The other countries on the list are Cuba, Iran, and Syria.

What other governments impose sanctions on North Korea?

U.S. allies Australia, Japan, and South Korea, as well as the European Union (EU), have sanctioned North Korea beyond the measures imposed by the UN Security Council. Each expanded their sanctions in 2022 in response to North Korea’s increased missile testing.

South Korea. Seoul has imposed unilateral sanctions on Pyongyang since 2010. Its latest came in 2017, when it sanctioned twenty organizations and thirty individuals related to North Korea’s missile program, mirroring U.S. unilateral sanctions. At the same time, Seoul has provided Pyongyang billions of dollars in aid since the early 1990s through international organizations such as the World Food Program. In 2022, South Korea offered to provide vaccines and other medical supplies to combat COVID-19, but North Korea declined. Some experts argue that such policies by South Korea have diluted the effects of sanctions. 

President Yoon has taken a harder stance toward North Korea than his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, who attempted to improve ties by meeting with Kim four times and approving aid disbursements, among other moves. In his inauguration speech, Yoon vowed to maintain sanctions until North Korea takes steps toward “complete and verifiable denuclearization.”

Japan. Tokyo has also restricted commercial and diplomatic exchanges with North Korea, imposing sanctions starting in 2006. It lifted some of them in 2014 to induce Pyongyang to investigate the disappearances of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s. However, North Korea repeatedly postponed responding to the investigations. Twelve Japanese abductees are still missing, but Pyongyang claimed in 2021 that the abduction issue was “already resolved” when Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio pledged to address the situation.

Japan imposed new sanctions in 2016 and 2017 in response to North Korea’s nuclear missile testing and extended them in 2019 and 2021. They freeze certain North Korean and Chinese assets, ban bilateral trade with North Korea, restrict the entry of North Korean citizens and ships into Japanese territory, and prohibit remittances worth more than $880. Japan has also played a sanctions monitoring role, tracking North Korean cargo transfers in regional waters. In 2022, Japan sanctioned thirteen organizations and individuals involved in North Korea’s missile and nuclear development. 

European Union. The EU first introduced sanctions against North Korea in 2006. Its supplemental economic restrictions ban the admission and residency of people who have facilitated North Korea’s weapons program, deny North Koreans access to specialized training, prohibit the export of oil and luxury products, ban EU investment across North Korean economic sectors, and cap remittances to the country. The EU expanded its sanctions in 2022, freezing the assets of twelve more individuals and entities. 

Australia. Like Japan and the EU, Australia has imposed sanctions since 2006. These sanctions prohibit commercial dealings with the North Korean national airline, Air Koryo; limit business with industries involved in extracting raw materials; ban eighteen sanctioned ships from Australian ports and waterways; and prevent North Koreans from traveling to Australia. They also include targeted sanctions on specific North Korean individuals and companies. Australia expanded sanctions in 2022 to include three additional entities.

What are the challenges associated with sanctions?

Sanctions evasion. The biggest challenge is enforcement, which is the responsibility of individual states. National authorities often have insufficient resources to inspect shipments at ports of entry, carry out complex investigations, and perform other enforcement activities. Some individuals and entities, motivated by financial gain, do business with North Korea outside the law, and smugglers take advantage of lax inspections at ports in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. Black market activities often go undetected as shipments elude customs scrutiny and official reporting.

Weak measures. Some foreign policy experts say UN sanctions against North Korea tend to be watered down in order to garner the backing of China and Russia, which, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, have veto power. In 2022, the two countries for the first time vetoed a U.S.-initiated proposal to expand sanctions on North Korea, citing the ineffectiveness of past actions. Both countries fear the possible outcomes of regime change in Pyongyang.

Emboldening Kim. Tougher sanctions could have the opposite of their intended effect and spur North Korea to pursue nuclear advancement with greater insurgency. Kim Jong-un has already conducted more missile and nuclear tests since he took power in 2012 than his father and grandfather combined. Experts say Kim could interpret additional sanctions as a threat to his regime’s survival and to take more belligerent actions, such as increasing missile testing. Pyongyang has condemned Washington’s push for sanctions as “gangster-like,” and shown no interest in engaging in denuclearization talks with the Biden administration.

Futile pursuit. Some foreign policy experts believe that sanctions alone will do little to deter Pyongyang from advancing its nuclear weapons program. Indeed, by mid-2022, it had ramped up missile testing, and analysts believed it was preparing for another nuclear test. North Korea has also secured illicit trading routes, which are mainly linked to China. Through such means, North Korean imports of refined petroleum exceeded the UN-imposed quota of 500,000 barrels by 64,301 barrels in 2021, according to a UN Security Council report [PDF]. The country has also managed to work around export bans on coal, iron, and seafood by illicit means. 

Human costs. Sanctions are often felt most by ordinary families, not the elites who are their intended targets. Export restrictions on the textile, fishing, and coal industries and bans on working abroad disproportionately affect North Koreans who depend on these economies. Sanctions also frequently delay and suspend the delivery of international humanitarian aid by complicating customs and other bureaucratic operations. A 2019 UN Security Council report [PDF] found that humanitarian aid to North Korea could take up to ten months to be processed, if it is not blocked altogether. Effective aid delivery is crucial in a country where half of the population is malnourished and one in every five children’s growth is stunted.

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the humanitarian situation. In 2021, trade with China, North Korea’s biggest trade partner, dropped 90 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels due to border closures. A 2022 UN Security Council report [PDF] revealed that fifty containers with medicine reached a North Korean seaport in August and September 2021, but months later, they still had not been delivered to their final destinations.

Are more sanctions the answer?

Many policy analysts see only a variety of poor options; none guarantee the denuclearization of North Korea, and some, if unsuccessful, could make matters worse. Many experts say that before new sanctions are considered, the existing ones should be better enforced, including by improving training for authorities inspecting ships in international ports.

Various countries and businesses have been found evading military and financial restrictions. Shipping and trading companies; fuel, mineral, and other national resource exporters; overseas employers of North Korean nationals; and financial services companies have been accused of circumventing sanctions. A 2020 report by the Institute for Science and International Security found that sixty-two countries violated [PDF] UN measures. While some entities purposefully shirk sanctions, others likely do so inadvertently. 

Disagreements remain over how to move forward. Some argue that there is room for far tougher sanctions against North Korea and those who profit from transacting with it. Others fear that expanding sanctions against Chinese entities could jeopardize the U.S.-China relationship and undermine bilateral cooperation on issues such as terrorism and climate change.

Still others argue that sanctions will take years to have a meaningful impact, and that any approach to North Korea will require incremental increases in pressure. Experts including CFR’s Scott A. Snyder say that sanctions must be implemented in conjunction with other measures, such as diplomacy with Pyongyang and assurances by Washington to its allies in the region.

Recommended Resources

This Backgrounder details North Korea’s military might.

For Foreign Affairs, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol elaborates on his foreign policy vision and perspective on North Korea.

CFR’s Scott A. Snyder summarizes common goals between U.S. President Joe Biden and Yoon, including what to do about North Korea’s nuclear program.

This Independent Task Force report argues that U.S. sanctions have been ineffective at stopping state-backed cyberattacks, including from North Korea. 

This Backgrounder unpacks the basics of economic sanctions

The Arms Control Association outlines UN Security Council resolutions regarding North Korea.

The U.S. Treasury Department details sanctions against North Korea and provides guidelines for their legal interpretation.

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Lyon Nishizawa, Amber Duan, and Eleanor Albert contributed to this Backgrounder.

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