Following the 29 November 2017 intercontinental ballistic missile launch by DPRK, the Security Council adopted UNSCR 2397 on 22 December 2017, significantly expanding the existing sanctions regime by an unprecedented number and scope of restrictions. Continuing a process that began in 2016, the DPRK sanctions started to approximate a comprehensive sanctions regime (even though it has remained technically a targeted one).
The unanimously adopted resolution broadened the existing sanctions by specifying new individuals and entities subject to sanctions measures and tightening the caps on the imports of crude oil and refined petroleum products to DPRK. In order to further restrict DPRK sources of revenue, UNSCR 2397 imposed a mandatory repatriation requirement on all DPRK nationals working abroad and the DPRK government safety oversight attachés monitoring them (to be implemented within 2 years) and banned the export of food and agricultural products, earth and stone, wood, machinery, electrical equipment, and vessels from DPRK. In an effort to restrict the import of items and materials with the potential to be used for prohibited activities, the resolution also banned the import to DPRK of iron, steel, other metals, industrial machinery, transportation vehicles, and used vessels (the procurement of new vessels and helicopters was banned by UNSCR 2321). Specifying the Harmonized System (HS) commodity codes for each banned item to facilitate uniform implementation, as per the Panel of Expert report recommendation, the resolution significantly expanded the number of DPRK sectors affected by UN sanctions. The resolution also extended conditional sanctions measures against DPRK vessels to vessels suspected of sanctions violations and authorized states to seize, inspect, and impound any such vessel in their territorial waters. UNSCR 2397 further expanded the targeted sanctions list by 16 individuals and 1 entity and the Sanctions Committee added 4 vessels on 28 December 2017 (SC/13149). An additional individual, 21 entities, and 27 vessels were designated on 30 March 2018 (SC/13272) and 3 more vessels were listed in October 2018 (SC/13542), but further designations have been prevented by Security Council disagreements.
After an unprecedented expansion of international sanctions, DPRK nuclear and ballistic activity, as well as military tensions throughout 2016 and 2017, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during his 2018 New Year’s address declared the North Korean nuclear program complete and signaled his interest in improving inter-Korean relations (the communication channel had been largely suspended since early 2016). US and South Korea subsequently agreed to postpone their joint military exercises until after the conclusion of the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea in mid-March 2018 and DPRK entered into an intense period of bilateral diplomatic activity with South Korea, leading to a de facto détente on the Korean peninsula. A high-level DPRK delegation participated in the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games, the two countries marched under a unified flag and fielded a joint ice hockey team, and several high level meetings on a number of issues were held throughout the period, culminating in the joint Kim-Moon summit on 27 April 2018, during which the two leaders pledged a “new history” for the two countries. Two more inter-Korean summits followed and the countries opened a joint liaison office in September 2018, enabling regular communication for the first time since the Korean War. In early 2018, Kim Jong-un also conducted several visits to China and expressed an interest in holding a summit with US President Donald Trump. The DPRK diplomatic outreach initiatives took place in the context of stricter Chinese implementation of UN sanctions against North Korea and an ongoing broadening of US unilateral sanctions against the country.
On 21 April 2018, DPRK announced the suspension of all nuclear and long-range ballistic missile tests and closure of its only nuclear test site. A Chinese study, released shortly after the announcement, reported that the Punggye-ri test side had collapsed following the last DPRK nuclear test on 3 September 2017, effectively precluding further nuclear tests. The site was dismantled on 24 May 2018 in a series of controlled explosions.
A Kim-Trump summit, facilitated by South Korea, was held in Singapore on 12 June 2018, despite temporary setbacks caused by US National Security Advisor John Bolton’s remarks that DPRK denuclearization process could follow the “Libya model” (Qadhafi, who agreed to give up nuclear weapons in 2003 in exchange for sanctions relief and reintegration into the international community, was toppled by a national uprising and NATO intervention in 2011). Although the joint declaration lacked any concrete commitments by the two sides, it did contribute to the perceived normalization of relations with DPRK and the summit resulted in DPRK’s reaffirmation of its April 2018 willingness to work towards “complete denuclearization” and US suspension of large-scale joint military exercises with South Korea, thus effectively resembling a “suspension-for-suspension” process proposed by China since early 2017. In the summit’s aftermath, China and Russia called for the review of UN sanctions . Although they subsequently agreed to keep the existing sanctions in place for the time being, the Security Council became increasingly divided on the approach to be taken towards DPRK sanctions.
Despite the general decrease in tensions, spur of diplomatic activity, and some unilateral DPRK concessions, the 2018 Panel of Experts report concluded that DPRK’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs remained “intact” and that the country continued to “defy Security Council resolutions through a massive increase in illicit ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products and coal,” which “render the latest United Nations sanctions ineffective.” The report also stressed the ongoing ineffectiveness of the UN financial sanctions measures, including due to the role of DPRK diplomats in sanctions evasion, increasing sophistication and scale of DPRK cyberattacks, and attempts to supply arms to Libya, Yemen, and Sudan by DPRK in violation of the UN arms embargo. Amidst the rising tensions within the Security Council, the US call for declaring the cap on refined petroleum products reached was blocked by Russia and China.
Diplomatic efforts began to stall in 2019, following the failed February 2019 summit between Kim and Trump in Hanoi. In mid-2019, DPRK resumed short-range ballistic missile activity after more than a year of voluntary suspension. Kim and Trump held a brief meeting at the demilitarized zone on 30 June 2019, agreeing to continue their discussion on demilitarization. However, the working-level negotiations in Sweden broke down in October 2019 over disagreements on the steps to be taken by the two sides with regards to sanctions relief and denuclearization. On 16 December 2019, Russia and China presented a draft resolution calling for partial sanction relief, citing concerns over the humanitarian impact of UN sanctions measures. Faced with opposition from other permanent Security Council members, the draft was shelved following two rounds of expert negotiations. Kim Jong-un, who gave the US until the end of 2019 to make concessions to move the stalled talks forward, announced during a ruling party conference in late December 2019 that the country was no longer bound by its unilateral moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missiles tests and threatened to demonstrate a “new strategic weapon” in the near future.
With rising tensions within the Security Council, UN sanctions implementation became less effective. The 2019 Panel of Experts report stressed ongoing deficiencies in sanctions implementation as well as increased evasion capacity of the DPRK, especially with regards to maritime evasion and procurement of currency through cyberattacks and cryptocurrency mining. The report also highlighted the ongoing access of the country to international banking channels, continued violations of the luxury goods ban, limited information on the implementation of DPRK worker restrictions and related repatriation (which was to become fully operational on 22 December 2019). The report also described a significant increase in the illicit export of coal by DPRK in 2019 (including through direct deliveries to China using self-propelled barges) and the illicit imports of refined petroleum products (which are increasingly taking place though direct deliveries by foreign-flagged vessels to DPRK ports, rather than illicit ship-to-ship transfers). Within the Security Council, there have been ongoing disagreements over the easing of DPRK sanctions restrictions and whether caps on petroleum imports have been exceeded. Russia and China have also been signaling their dissatisfaction with the current sanctions regime by both tolerating and openly engaging in sanctions violations (especially with regards to trade in prohibited commodities and the provision of visas for DPRK nationals). The divisions within the Security Council have also resulted in the failure to agree on any new designations, despite increasing sanctions violations and multiple listing suggestions by the Panel of Experts. These trends have continued in 2020.
With the outbreak of the Covid-19 epidemic in China, DPRK resorted to the closure of its borders at the end of January 2020, which had a negative impact on both the economy and the humanitarian situation in the country. However, most of its illicit activities (including short-range ballistic missile tests) began to resume in March 2020 and the US estimated that the country was in breach of its annual petroleum imports cap by May 2020. Although the DPRK has not conducted any nuclear, long- or medium-range missile tests since late 2017, its nuclear and ballistic missile programs continued to develop and, according to the 2020 mid-term Panel of Experts report, several member states believe that DPRK “has probably developed miniaturized nuclear devices to fit into the warheads of its ballistic missiles.” Amidst the increasingly dire humanitarian situation in the country, the Sanctions Committee has accelerated the humanitarian exemptions process by shortening the decision-making period from 5 to 2 working days. The UN Secretariat has also been exploring ways of using cash couriers and other means to fund the activities of UN agencies operating in the country unable to utilize normal banking channels due to the financial sanctions in place.
The year also witnessed an increase in tensions on the Korean peninsula. In mid-June 2020, the DPRK cut off all communication with the South and blew up the newly established liaison office in response to the spread of anti-regime propaganda by South Korean activists along the border.
Coerce DPRK to cease nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches, end WMD programs, retract Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) withdrawal, and return to the stalled Six-Party Talks to engage in negotiations, including about the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Constrain DPRK's nuclear proliferation and access to nuclear, chemical, biological, and conventional weapons and their delivery systems related technology.
Signal support for non-proliferation norms, specifically the NPT.
Current and maximum number of designees during the episode: 80 individuals, 75 entities, and 59 vessels.
UN sanctions are likely to have significant impacts on the general population, since they include restrictions on the import of widely used commodities (such as oil), major commodity exports, and/or the transportation or financial sectors that affect the entire economy.
Sanctions Committee and Panel of Experts in place. Designation criteria were specified and targets designated, including vessels. Enforcement authorities specified.
Although refusing to return to the NPT or the Six-Party Talks and continuing its nuclear and missile programs, DPRK participated in a number of bilateral negotiations, expressed commitment to work towards “complete denuclearization,” and unilaterally announced its decision to suspend further nuclear tests and dismantle its only nuclear test site, which led to a temporary détente in 2018. However, it has continued to develop its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and, after the talks collapsed in 2019, resumed short-range ballistic missile tests.
Although UN sanctions continued to present important means through which the international community tried to coerce DPRK to stop engaging in proscribed activities, US bilateral negotiations with DPRK played an increasingly important role in influencing DPRK behavior. While acknowledged by the actor, other unilateral sanctions, US willingness to engage in negotiations and suspend military exercises, as well as the collapse of the only DPRK nuclear test site also contributed to DPRK's decision to offer limited concessions and engage in diplomatic efforts.
DPRK suspended its nuclear tests and long-range ballistic missile launches at the start of the episode but its nuclear and ballistic missile development continued to advance, becoming more sophisticated and self-reliant. DPRK resumed ballistic missile testing in the second half of 2019 amidst stalled diplomatic talks with the US on partial sanctions relief in exchange for progress on denuclearization and its evasion practices have continued to expand in both scope and sophistication.
UN sanctions presented the primary instruments of constraint. Other sanctions, threats of military use of force, and the collapse of the only DPRK nuclear test site also played an important role in constraining DPRK’s nuclear program, but the relaxed implementation of sanctions by Russia and China increasingly undermines the strength of the constraint.
Non-proliferation norm was clearly articulated by the Security Council but DPRK’s strong international stigmatization decreased as a result of the diplomatic efforts to re-engage the country in the process of denuclearization and normalization of relations, as well as the internal division within the Security Council on whether to maintain pressure on the DPRK or proceed with sanctions relief.
Sanctions remained an important means for signaling the non-proliferation norm, but diplomatic re-engagement with DPRK on denuclearization also contributed to the signal.
Increase in corruption and criminality, strengthening of authoritarian rule, increase in human rights violations, increase in international regulatory capacity in different issue domains, increase in international enforcement capacity in different issue domains, resource diversion, significant burden on implementing states, humanitarian consequences, widespread harmful economic consequences, other (impact on humanitarian aid, international organizations, and foreign diplomatic missions in DPRK).