January 30, 2018

How to Successfully Sanction North Korea

A Long-Term Strategy for Washington and Its Allies

By Peter Harrell and Juan Zarate

The North Korean nuclear crisis has placed a premium on the ability of sanctions to avert war, and the past two years have seen an important increase in U.S. and international sanctions against Pyongyang. Since the beginning of 2016, the United Nations Security Council has enacted five new resolutions that rank among the toughest such penalties the UN has ever imposed on any country—targeting the North’s sources of income and trade, and not simply entities directly involved in its nuclear program. The U.S. Congress and President Donald Trump’s administration also enacted important new sanctions last year, including a welcome move to begin imposing sanctions on Chinese companies that engage in commercial trade with North Korea. Just last week, the Trump administration strengthened these measures by imposing sanctions on more than a dozen North Korean financial and procurement representatives based in China and by targeting two Chinese companies that engaged in commercial business with North Korea.

These measures have had a notable effect, thanks in part to better Chinese cooperation to cut off key trade in coal and other minerals, South Korean shipping interdictions, and international financial vigilance. But for economic sanctions to force North Korean leader Kim Jong Un into making meaningful nuclear concessions, let alone to bring a change in North Korea’s leadership, the United States and its allies need a long-term strategy to constrain North Korea’s economy and make the sanctions bite.

The key to a successful sanctions strategy is recognizing that such measures take time to achieve results. Consider the case of Iran. U.S. President George W. Bush first began a campaign of international economic pressure against Iranian banks in 2006, and the UN and the U.S. Congress both enacted tough sanctions between 2010 and 2012. But it was not until 2013, after the economic isolation began to take its toll and lower oil prices hurt Tehran’s budget and reserves, that the regime was prepared for serious negotiations over its nuclear program. It would be another two years of talks before the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 nuclear agreement, was signed.

Read the full op-ed in Foreign Affairs.

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