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The End of North Korean Sanctions Enforcement…and What Comes Next

08 Jul 2024
By Professor Justin V. Hastings
Kim Jong-un 2019. Kremlin/Wikimedia Commons/

Sanctions enforcement against North Korea is collapsing. Alternative strategies are likely to be ineffective, and North Korea is poised to take advantage. 

Enforcement of United Nations sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is collapsing. On 28 March 2024, Russia vetoed the renewal of the Panel of Experts committee monitoring compliance with United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea, bringing an end to the panel as of 30 April 2024. The purpose of the Panel of Experts was to monitor UN member states’ compliance with sanctions, produce public reports on how the sanctions were being enforced and how North Korea was attempting to evade the sanctions, and provide aid, where relevant, to member states in enforcing sanctions. While DPRK sanctions remain in effect, enforcement of those sanctions was already weakening, and in fact had been sliding downward since 2018. 

In the United Nations Security Council (UNSCR), for example, no new sanctions against North Korea have been passed since 2018. In May 2022, Russia and China vetoed a new sanctions package proposed by the United States in response to North Korean ballistic missile tests, a violation of UN sanctions. While the lack of new UN sanctions does not per se mean that sanctions enforcement has ended, it does suggest that the connection between North Korean provocations and the passage of new sanctions has been severed. 

Seemingly mundane incidents in China indicate a lack of sanctions enforcement. In January 2024, for instance, North Korean workers in textile factories in China reportedly protested, to the point of rioting, over withheld wages. Given that textiles are banned from being exported from North Korea by UNSCR, the existence of textile factories staffed by North Korean workers in China is a violation of the spirit of the sanctions resolutions. North Korean workers continue to work in seafood processing in northeastern China, apparently without issue from China. However, as with employment of North Korean workers overseas, export of North Korean seafood is also banned by UN sanctions. 

Kim Jong-un’s trip to Russia in September 2023 included a visit to Vostochny Cosmodrome, and a meeting with Vladimir Putin in which Putin promised North Korea aid in its (ostensibly civilian) space program, likely a violation UN sanctions. During Vladimir Putin’s visit to North Korea in June 2024 to sign a comprehensive strategic partnership with Kim Jong-un, he presented a luxury limousine to the North Korean leader, arguably a violation of United Nations sanctions against exporting luxury items to North Korea. Furthermore, Russia appears to have been shipping refined oil to North Korea in excess of the maximum allowed by sanctions resolutions. 

China may also be becoming less tolerant of other countries enforcing sanctions against North Korea, at least to the extent to which sanctions enforcement impinges on Chinese government interests. Australian warships operating in the Yellow Sea have repeatedly been involved in unsafe incidents with Chinese warships and planes since 2023. This includes a November 2023 incident in which a Chinese warship emitted a sonar pulse which forced Australian navy divers out of the water while working on the HMAS Toowoomba, and an incident in May 2024 in which a Chinese fighter jet dropped flares in front of an Australian helicopter, forcing evasive manoeuvres. 

Jointly, Russia and China issued a statement in May 2024 blaming the US for “acts of military intimidation by the US and its allies that escalate confrontation with North Korea, which may lead to armed incidents and a rise in tensions on the Korean Peninsula.” Left unmentioned were sanctions against North Korea. 

Potential Changes to Sanctions 

There are a number of proposals for continued sanctions monitoring, including a General Assembly-based monitoring and reporting panel, monitoring directly by the UN sanctions committee, and reporting by non-government organisations. All have downsides, and legitimacy concerns–no action can encourage compliance with monitoring. 

The Group of Seven (G7) and other countries sympathetic to enforcement of UN sanctions, such as South Korea and Australia, are likely to move to ad hoc sanctions enforcement groupings that don’t include Russia and China. They will potentially create a new clearinghouse for information on North Korean sanctions enforcement, but without the United Nations mark of legitimacy, this will likely result in the cooperation of fewer UN member states, many of whom already chafe at the cost and effort associated with enforcing North Korean sanctions. 

Autonomous trade sanctions by G7 and other countries are likely to be ineffective in even slowing down physical trade: the two countries with the closest land and sea borders to North Korea are no longer enforcing sanctions, and their increasing intolerance of sanctions enforcement near their waters means that other countries’ patrolling the waters around North Korea will be unwelcome. 

Nonetheless, the G7 and other countries such as Australia may resort to attempting to strengthen autonomous trade sanctions, and may more vigorously pursue secondary sanctions against Chinese and other countries’ firms that do business with North Korea or North Korea’s brokers. In May 2024, for instance, Canada sanctioned a number of Russian companies that were allegedly involved in facilitating the weapons transfers from North Korea to Russia. Australia likewise imposed targeted financial sanctions related to the North Korea-Russia weapons trade.  

The US in particular is likely to seek to impose stronger financial sanctions on North Korea, including through targeting banks that may be doing business with North Korean entities, or with companies doing business with North Korea. The rise of small Chinese financial institutions in northeastern China that do not do business in US Dollars, and that are willing to finance cross-border deals with Russia in the face of US and European financial sanctions against Russia suggests that similar institutions may be willing to work with North Korea amid a collapse in Chinese government enforcement of UN sanctions. 

What Comes Next 

These measures are unlikely to be effective, and with newfound confidence that its two closest partners are unwilling to enforce sanctions, North Korea’s foreign and security policy behaviour is also likely to change. In the near term, this suggests that North Korea’s interest in negotiations–whether with the United States, Japan, or South Korea–are likely to be low, and a stated goal of reunification is being de-emphasised. North Korea has no plans to give up its weapons, and has been able to minimise the effect of sanctions: there is nothing, in other words, to discuss. This is unlikely to change even in the event of the return of Donald Trump to the US presidency. 

With the uncoupling of new sanctions, or even sanctions enforcement, and North Korean behaviour, North Korea is also likely to adopt riskier, more provocative behaviour as it finds new confidence from the support of both Russia and China. At the least, this will mean continued testing of ballistic missiles. The high failure rate of North Korea’s missiles in Ukraine means that North Korea will likely attempt to improve missile reliability through testing, and may have the means to do so with improved access to missile components from abroad.   

Aside from feeling decreased pressure from sanctions that are designed to coerce North Korea into denuclearising, or at least entering into denuclearisation negotiations, the end of sanctions enforcement is also likely to reinforce certain aspects of North Korea’s approach to conflict preparation on the Korean Peninsula. An implication of North Korea’s shipment of train loads of artillery shells and rockets is that its warfighting doctrine has come to rely less on conventional weapons (where it is clearly outmatched by South Korea), and more on nuclear weapons and other “unconventional” weapons, such as submarine-launched missiles. 

Justin V. Hastings is Professor of International Relations and Comparative Politics at the University of Sydney. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.