Implementing Sanctions against North Korea:A US Perspective

By all accounts, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2270 represents a significant and unexpected advance of the authority given to the UN and member states to pursue sanctions against the DPRK. Language referring to North Korean coal, iron ore, and jet fuel was unprecedented, and the demands for member state action were more insistent, in many cases moving from merely “calling upon” governments to act to requiring their implementation of UN mandates. While diplomats rightly hailed 2270 as unprecedented, experts and longtime watchers of North Korea reacted to the resolution with caution and, in some cases, skepticism. Every previous UNSC resolution imposing sanctions on the North could rightly be described as “the strongest resolution ever adopted,” but the language rarely translated into action on the ground. The UN Panel of Experts on North Korea has documented the ways in which many member states have either engaged in only the most perfunctory efforts to implement past resolutions or ignored their obligations entirely.1

Beyond these institutional obstacles, sanctions on the DPRK must confront a number of hard truths. In general, sanctions have a modest track record, and as regards North Korea, there are special challenges.2 The North shares a long border with a country that can boast the second largest economy in the world. Geography may not be destiny, but it certainly matters in this case.  If one is trying to evade sanctions, better to border an economic powerhouse, especially at a moment in the history of East Asia characterized by rising globalism and trade. In addition, some of the objectives set out for sanctions are simply not possible to achieve, or even desirable, from a practical point of view. One cannot stop and inspect every ship and plane that might conceivably depart to or return from the DPRK. Finally, as my colleague John Park and I have recently documented, the DPRK does not remain passive in the face of sanctions. It innovates and develops countermeasures.3

The Singular Importance of China

For most analysts, the success or failure of sanctions is less a matter of the challenges described above and instead a function of the one and only factor: China. Roughly 90% of the DPRK’s trade is with China, and that dependence has only increased with the slow spread of sanctions and the decision by South Korea to shutter the Kaesong complex. Despite its tremendous leverage, many expect that China will not lead on sanctions. To unbiased observers, there are good reasons for this. China is unhappy with the North’s nuclear and missile programs and the negative consequences they have for Chinese foreign policy, but those problems pale in comparison to the catastrophe that a collapsed DPRK would represent for it.  If sanctions prove too effective and induce regime disintegration, Beijing would have a failed nuclear weapons state on its border, face the prospect of millions of poor refugees flooding into the country, and might well see US-allied South Korean troops marching north to its border. Arguably, worst of all from a Chinese perspective, its neighbor’s death spiral would jeopardize China’s own economy (especially in the border provinces) and, thus, threaten its goal of social stability through economic growth.

Given those geopolitical realities, skepticism about China’s commitment to sanctions is not unreasonable, despite what have been Beijing’s increasingly assertive statements on denuclearization and support for international sanctions that target the North’s WMD programs.4  So, if the key to sanctions is China, and China has strong national interests in avoiding the risk of a DPRK collapse, then, logically, Beijing will not act on sanctions, and Resolution 2270 can be added to the pile of other “strongest ever” UN DPRK sanctions resolutions that wilted from inaction. Does the evidence to date support this skepticism?

Implementation of 2270: Results to Date

It is too early to know whether Resolution 2270 represents a departure from the past. It was passed in early March, a little more than 5 months ago. The promulgation of new national laws, let alone their implementation, typically takes longer than that, and for laws already on the books, it can take time to cajole a sleepy bureaucracy into adopting a new mindset and new practices. So, the short answer is that we do not yet know with any certainty what the effects have been or will be. Still, there are some data available, and they are suggestive.

First, there are a variety of new trade statistics that report a recent drop in various aspects of China-DPRK trade.5 South Korea’s Korea Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (KTIPA) reported a decrease of 22% in Chinese imports from North Korea in April, allegedly the month that China began to implement sanctions. Using data from China’s General Administration of Customs, CEIC Data arrived at a similar conclusion. KTIPA also reported a roughly 13% decline in China’s imports in May, compared to the previous year.6  Similarly, South’s Korea Intelligence Service told its legislature that North Korean coal and arms exports plummeted by 40% and 88% respectively, compared to the previous year.7 They reportedly attributed at least part of this result to sanctions. In addition, there are open source, satellite-based data from Victor Cha and his colleagues that point to a rather dramatic drop in trade along the Chinese-North Korean border in particular.8

Analysts would be right to be cautious about drawing strong conclusions about these reports, however. Even if the data are true, they may reflect a slowing Chinese economy or other economic developments rather than an application of sanctions. In addition, the general trade numbers do not tell us much about the DPRK’s ability to procure weapons-related technology and material. It may also be the case that the North has found new and as yet undocumented pathways for imports and exports. Still, if the numbers had showed an increase in trade, most observers would have taken that as evidence of China’s lack of commitment regarding sanctions.

Second, Chinese authorities have taken a number of actions since March that may – or may not—signal a new commitment to sanctions. These include the issuance of a follow-on document to Technical Bulletin 59 that identifies goods that are prohibited from being sold to the DPRK,9 as well as the arrest of North Korean officials for counterfeiting,10 arms sales,11 and other illicit activities.

Third, China aside, other major players have taken the initiative and imposed new financial sanctions. Most notably, Russia and the EU adopted new financial sanctions, and the United States designated the DPRK as a country engaged in money laundering, a finding which triggers a variety of new sanction instrumentalities. Again, whether these will matter will depend, in part, on whether they are implemented, but the new initiatives may be indicative of a new energy and commitment to sanctions.

Fourth, a more speculative domain relates not to the behavior of sanctioning states but instead to the targets of sanctions, i.e., those in North Korea. Such telltale behavior might include actions by North Korea or its citizens to respond to sanctions, or alternatively, actions taken in anticipation that sanctions will have a future effect. One might plausibly argue that the 200-day loyalty campaign, announced on the heels of the 70-day loyalty campaign, is a reaction to sanctions. Similarly, one could assert that the rise in defections (even among the North’s elites), changes in the rules governing state trading companies (and their private equivalents), and the return of once abandoned revenue practices (e.g., the counterfeiting of US currency) are a response to sanctions or their anticipated effects. Perhaps, the most interesting and most creative of these hypotheses is that the North’s flurry of missile tests is due to concern about its ability to conduct tests in the future under a more onerous sanctions regime.

Each of these intriguing assertions could be true, but it is impossible to know.  For each of these behaviors, there is a myriad of other equally logical explanations that do not involve sanctions.  These may be the kinds of indicators that analysts can confirm only in retrospect, when the political scientists and the historians begin to piece together happened, after it happened.

Reading the Entrails: What Does It All Mean?

Are sanctions being implemented? Are they working? We have no smoking gun, no proof positive that sanctions are beginning to show effect. But that would be too much to expect, given the calendar. And it is worth pointing out that the data do not show the opposite result, either, that Resolution 2270 has failed. The early results are promising, but not close to conclusive. 

As I have discussed these findings with South Koreans and Americans, they have served as a kind of Rorschach test. There is a particular school of thought in South Korean and American policy circles that is: 1) absolutely committed to squeezing the DPRK hard; and 2) wants to take an aggressive stance towards China in order to “force it” to get tough on North Korea. I find this view to be deeply flawed, at variance with both the logic of international relations and logic in general, but my attitude is not what is interesting about this. What strikes me is that members of this school invariably dismiss the indicators discussed above. Nothing, it seems, can dissuade them from the conclusion that China is subverting the sanctions regime and that only coercion can win the day. This willful rejection of the early data seems more a matter of religious belief than evidence-based evaluation.  

Postscript: Thinking about the Future

If there is one theme here, it is probably that any conclusion is tenuous. In the first instance, that reflects the fact that the early data are preliminary and might be explained by many factors. But there are other reasons as well. Even if it is true that China has taken steps to reduce its trade with the North, that would likely be an act of signaling, not a permanent commitment. It is very difficult to see Beijing signing on to a dramatic, long-term reduction in bilateral trade, as that would surely threaten the viability of the North Korean state.

In addition, political developments on the peninsula (e.g., THAAD) or elsewhere in the region (e.g., the South China Sea) may sour China’s appetite for international cooperation on the problem of North Korea. Such an outcome may be less a matter of interests than politics. Those in China who view the United States as a relentless hegemon seeking to encircle China will use these various developments to argue that cooperation should be abandoned. 

None of this is to suggest that countries should capitulate to China’s demands, but it does speak to the need for greater situational awareness and a smarter political strategy. It would be a tragedy and, perhaps, even a catastrophe, if the international community finally got China to address the North’s nuclear and missile programs only to squander that achievement. Success will require both a nuanced foreign policy and a willingness to rely on evidence, not ideology.

1. Report of the Panel of Experts established pursuant to resolution 1874 (2009). February 24, 2016; 10, 11, 65.

2. John Park and Jim Walsh. Stopping North Korea, Inc.: Sanctions Effectiveness and Unintended Consequences. MIT Security Studies Program. (2016): 8-14.

3. Ibid.

4. For China skeptics, the doubts appeared all the more warranted in light of post-test Chinese statements and meetings in support of its neighbor to the south. This last inference seems unwarranted if not unrealistic and unhelpful. It would be foolish for China to publicly turn on the DPRK, thus encouraging it to go rogue. Not only would such a move increase the risk of conflict as the North would see itself surrounded by enemies, it would essentially eliminate any possibility of a political solution, as the DPRK would lack any possible great power guarantor to whatever agreement could be negotiated.

5.   For DPRK trade statistics, see: “North Korean Economy Watch,”

6. “China’s Imports of N. Korean Goods Plunge 22.3% in April,” The Korea Herald, May 24, 2016,; Oki Nagai, “Cross-Border Trade Hints Sanctions on North Korea Taking a Bite,” Nikkei Asian Review, May 26, 2016, 

7. “Seoul Says North Korean Exports Have Plunged After UN Sanctions,” Latin American Herald Tribune, July 1, 2016,

8. Josh Rogin, “Satellite Imagery Suggests China is Secretly Punishing North Korea.” The Washington Post, July 1, 2016,; for an alternative view see, Paul Boutin, “Is China Cutting Off North Korea? New Analysis of Satellite Images Say No,” Medium,  July 26, 2016,

9.   Roger Cazavos, Peter Hayes, and David von Hippel. “Technical Bulletin #59 on Prohibition of Dual-use Exports to North Korea,” NAPSNet Special Reports, September 26, 2013,; Megha Rajagopalan, “China Says to Ban Export of More Dual-Use Goods to North Korea,” Reuters, June 14, 2016,

10.   Julian Ryall, “North Korea May have Resumed Counterfeiting Operation,” The Telegraph, June 28, 2016,

11. “China Arrests Dozens of Smugglers Trading Weapons with North Korea,” Yonhap, June 16, 2016,