Effectiveness of U.S. Sanctions on North Korea

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The key to a successful sanctions strategy is recognizing that measures take time to achieve results (Harrell & Zarate, 2018). Time is something the U.S. and the rest of the world may not have enough of to deter the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from advancing in its nuclear weapons program and development of ballistic missile technology. These activities have earned North Korea several international sanctions. Some U.S. sanctions on North Korea have shown to be effective in the short term, while other U.S. lead UN sanctions have given North Korea room to breathe (Harrell & Zarate, 2018). For diplomatic and economic sanctions to force North Korea to denuclearize, the U.S. and allies should develop an aggressive, well- coordinated and enforceable long-term strategy.

Economic sanctions are defined as the withdrawal of customary trade and financial relations for foreign and security policy purposes (Masters, 2017). According to the Council of Foreign Relations, sanctions take a variety of forms, including travel bans, asset freezes, arms embargoes, capital restraints, foreign aid reductions, and trade restrictions to coerce, deter, punish, or shame entities that endanger their interests or violate international norms of behavior (Masters, 2017). A well planned and executed sanction can be an effective foreign policy tool.

Clearly there is a global consensus that North Korean nuclear testing and development pose real and significant security risks. Since 2016, the U.S. has led the efforts for the United Nations’ Security Council to unanimously pass nine rounds of sanctions against North Korea, and additional sanctions have been enacted individually by the United States, the European Union, Japan and South Korea (Harrell & Zarate, 2018). The UN sanctions include a focus on North Korean major exports like coal, iron ore, textiles and seafoods, which constitute $3 billion in annual income, capping sources of fuel like oil, petroleum and natural gas and asset freezes for individuals involved in the nuclear program (Mullen, 2018). The U.S. sanctions restrict go beyond those of the U.N.

While the U.N. sanctions have affected North Korea minimally, the U.S. sanctions have made a stronger impact. Gaining cooperation from the countries that trade with North Korea has presented a challenge to enforcing UN sanctions. However, the U.S. began to fill in the gaps that the UN sanctions began to reveal. U.S. sanctions were designed to specifically target North Korea’s development of missile and nuclear technology and include the sanctioning of North Korean trading partners such as China and Russia.

For example, the US set out to cut North Korea off from the rest of the financial world barring American banks from pursuing direct or indirect transactions with North Korean banks, and Chinese and Russian entities and individuals and freezing assets of those businesses that continued to do business with North Korea (Mullen, 2018).

Improved diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China (Korea’s most significant trading partner) have influenced China’s stance on Korea. In 2017, China agreed to ban a variety of North Korean exports and to cap oil imports, potentially the most damaging measures to date (Haggard, 2018). Therefore, China’s cooperation and the international community’s fear of being shut out of U.S. financial markets have contributed to the success seen to date on U.S. and U.N. sanctions.

On the other hand, North Korea has proven to be skilled in evading sanctions. North Korean has a reputation for using evasive techniques to create shell corporations, launder money and smuggle operations such as arranging off shore ship to ship transfers of oil to mask its identity as the oil purchaser (Harrell & Zarate, 2018). Another evasion tactic used by North Korea has been diplomacy. In the past, North Korean leaders, especially Kim, have sought out reductions in pressure without having to concede anything meaningful, allowing North Korea to avoid truly punishing economic consequences (Harrell & Zarate, 2018). U.S. sanctions are just beginning to make an impact and allowing for concession will eliminate any leverage the U.S. has gained.

Foreign policy experts have also said that tougher sanctions could have the opposite effect on Kim Jung-un, as he has made it clear he will uphold North Korea’s nuclear arsenal no matter the costs. For example, Kim, could interpret more sanctions as a threat to the survival of the North Korean regime, emboldening him and adding urgency to the advancement of the nuclear development or even acting on South Korea or Guam – a U.S. territory (Albert, 2018).

Finally, South Korea’s policy for engagement with its neighbor has the potential to dilute effects of any sanctions. Seeking a peaceful co-existence, South Korea continues to provide humanitarian aid to its neighbor. In 2017, South Korean president Moon approved $8 million in aid as he believes that his approach for peace will prevail in Kim making significant denuclearization (Albert, 2018).

As this paper illustrates, U.S. led U.N. sanctions and unilateral U.S. sanctions have had noteworthy effect. However, a long-term strategy should overcome the appeal of instant gratification or reactionist response to North Korea’s actions. Research has shown that coordinated efforts, enforcement, information sharing, and patience are the keys to successful sanctions (Harrell & Zarate, 2018). Improved coordination between the U.S. and prominent North Korea trading partners like China and Russia, and neighbors like South Korea and Japan will make a significant impact on North Korean economics. To date, North Korean sanctions have been limited and episodic in scope and the world has seen North Korea adapt to pressure rather creatively to survive (Harrell & Zarate, 2018).

This is where enforcement will play a major role. Sanctions are only as effective as their enforcement (Harrell & Zarate, 2018). The U.S. should fiercely pursue enforcement so that creative evasion can be curtailed, and maximum effect can take place. Smuggling operations will not replace the foreign exchange losses associated with major export bans (Haggard, 2018). North Korea’s trade deficit will continue to grow to the point of being insurmountable and the U.S. should not relent.

Information sharing by the U.S. with allies and the rest of the world will publicly expose North Korean sanction violations. Where the U.S. and its allies (like Japan, Canada, New Zealand and Australia) had remained private about operations enforcing North Korean sanctions, now they are presenting a united front showing the world the realities of sanction evasions and collective efforts to enforce said sanctions until North Korean denuclearization occurs. The U.S. should remain patient and steadfast in this approach.

The last component to successful long-term sanction strategy is patience. It may take years for economic sanctions to have any meaningful effect. However, the pieces are falling into place and the U.S. needs to hold steady and role model for its allies and North Korean trading partners. U.S. sanctions have contributed to increasingly isolating North Korea from the global market and economic opportunity: China accounts for 90% of North Korea’s trade, the U.S. is cutting off access to financial institutions, and accountability in the public court is increasing (Haggard, 2018).

Denuclearization of North Korea is a critical security initiative for the United States. Sanctions if executed properly via long term-plan involving coordinated efforts, enforcement, information sharing, and patience can lead to an effective and peaceful resolution.


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  2. Council on Foreign Relations. (2018). What to Know About the Sanctions on North Korea. [online] Available at: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-know-about-sanctions-north-korea [Accessed 9 Dec. 2018].
  3. Council on Foreign Relations. (2018). What Are Economic Sanctions?. [online] Available at: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-are-economic-sanctions [Accessed 9 Dec. 2018].
  4. Harrell, P. and Zarate, J. (2018). How to Successfully Sanction North Korea. [online] Foreign
  5. Affairs. Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/north-korea/2018-01-30/how-successfully-sanction-north-korea [Accessed 9 Dec. 2018].
  6. Mullen, J. (2018). These sanctions will keep squeezing North Korea’s economy. [online]
  7. CNNMoney. Available at: https://money.cnn.com/2018/06/12/news/economy/north-korea-sanctions-explainer/index.html [Accessed 9 Dec. 2018].
  8. Ryan Browne, C. (2018). US, allies readying effort to expose North Korean sanctions violations. [online] CNN. Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2018/09/12/politics/us-north-korea-sanctions-violations/index.html [Accessed 9 Dec. 2018].

Cite this paper

Effectiveness of U.S. Sanctions on North Korea. (2021, Apr 18). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/effectiveness-of-u-s-sanctions-on-north-korea/



Does the US help North Korea?
No, the US does not provide any direct aid or assistance to North Korea. In fact, the US maintains economic sanctions and political pressure on North Korea in response to its nuclear weapons program.
How does North Korea evade sanctions?
1. North Korea uses a number of methods to evade sanctions, including using front companies, illicit trade, and barter. 2. North Korea also relies on its relationships with countries like China and Russia to help it evade sanctions.
Why does the US have sanctions on North Korea?
The United States has sanctions on North Korea because of North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
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