Sanctions on North Korea emerged as the main sticking point during the recent Hanoi summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong UN. In a rare news conference, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said Kim was seeking a “partial” lifting of sanctions that “hamper the civilian economy and the livelihood of our people,” an account confirmed by a senior US official. But the distinction between purely economic sanctions and measures to inhibit North Korea’s weapons programs is anything but clear — and drawing such a distinction only plays to Pyongyang’s advantage.
Reducing North Korea’s nuclear threat will take a focused and detailed negotiating process managed by empowered envoys — while maintaining strict enforcement of sanctions as long as they remain in place.
North Korea may be playing on a vulnerability in how the administration has portrayed sanctions as “maximum pressure” to gain negotiating leverage, neglecting their important counterproliferation role. The United States should be careful not to fall into Pyongyang’s trap of defining sanctions relief merely in economic terms.
What the North Koreans asked for — trading significant sanctions relief in exchange for (undefined) dismantlement of some facilities at their main nuclear complex in Yongbyon — would have been a deal that gave them more than they gave up. But in addition to the economic relief that would have come with that deal, it also would have eased many measures that have direct implications for the national security of the United States and our allies.
The core of the North Korea sanctions regime — which includes not just US unilateral sanctions but more importantly, multilateral sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council — is focused on preventing materials, know-how and financing for North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs from getting into, or out of, North Korea. These non-proliferation sanctions have been important not only in attempting to slow the growth of the North’s programs, but also in preventing Pyongyang from transferring sensitive materials and weapons systems to other countries (something it has shown a willingness to do, including selling missiles to Iran and a nuclear reactor to Syria, later destroyed by Israel).
Both the Obama and Trump administrations also employed measures targeted at key economic sectors as a way to squeeze North Korea and gain negotiating leverage — similar to the strategy the Obama administration pursued against Iran. These sanctions, including restrictions on the import of oil and coal and the export of seafood and textiles, built pressure on the North to abandon its programs and also cut off pathways for North Korea to earn hard currency, which it uses to fund its missile and nuclear programs (and other military capabilities).
North Korea has been successful in evading proliferation restrictions for years, dating back at least to the 1990s, exactly because it used shadowy networks and questionable banking practices to make it seem as though it was engaging in mundane commercial activities. But all along, it was dealing in conventional arms and equipment suitable for building weapons of mass destruction. This is one reason UN restrictions on banking transactions, asset freezes, travel bans on North Korea government and trading officials, the chartering of North Korea aircraft and ships, and the use of export credits or trade financing were imposed by the UN in 2006 in the first place. The same inspection regimes that allow states to inspect North Korean cargoes are key to preventing not just the shipment of banned commercial goods but also proliferation-sensitive items. The United Nations even incorporated a so-called “catch all clause,” so governments could seize items that appeared innocuous but were suspected for use in Pyongyang’s WMD programs.
Where things go now is not clear. If negotiations continue on the contours of the deal discussed there, Trump and Kim must step back from leader-level meetings and instead delegate negotiations to truly empowered diplomats and technical experts. By using a scalpel rather than an ax, the United States could retain the strict measures designed to curtail North Korea from expanding its WMD and missile programs or proliferating technology to others, while also allowing for some limited commercial activity. There could be tightly crafted carve-outs for specific types of trade, coupled with a monitoring regime to pre-screen exports to North Korea and confirm that they are used for strictly civilian purposes. US negotiators also should take a page from the Iran deal and incorporate a “snap back” mechanism, an innovative process that would allow the United States to move quickly in the UN. Security Council to reimpose sanctions on North Korea if it violates its nuclear commitments.
If the negotiations falter, having lost momentum after the Hanoi summit, the de facto freeze-for-freeze — North Korea has halted its nuclear and missile testing, while the US and South Korea have halted their large-scale military exercises — could become a more permanent status quo. Especially in this case, continued enforcement of existing sanctions will be critical to protecting US national security, preventing proliferation and potentially getting North Korea back to the negotiating table in the future. Sanctions enforcement already slipped over the past year as diplomacy has taken hold, and Ri’s framing may be an attempt to seek sympathy from China, Russia and South Korea, all of which have been calling for a lifting of at least some sanctions.
Ensuring continued effectiveness of the sanctions regime will require the United States to remain focused on the security imperatives of these sanctions with our partners. Otherwise, Pyongyang may get a further weakening of sanctions without giving anything in exchange on its nuclear and WMD programs. In that scenario, Pyongyang would be the clear winner.
Laura Rosenberger has served as a senior adviser to the US deputy secretary of state. Richard Johnson was the director of non-proliferation at the National Security Council staff in the Barack Obama administration.