North Korea’s implicit sanctions bargain

A clerk watches a set of TV's broadcasting a news report on the Hanoi summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, in Seoul, South Korea, 28 February, 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Kim).

Author: Justin Hastings, University of Sydney

US–North Korea relations have been in an uneasy stasis since the failure of the February 2019 Hanoi summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump. The surprise meeting between Trump and Kim at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in June set off efforts to restart talks, although progress remains unclear.

In the meantime, North Korea is continuing to do everything it can to circumvent sanctions. Ship movements through Nampo apparently continue unabated, as do ship-to-ship oil transfers. Japan and South Korea have accused each other of shipping chemicals and other items to North Korea in violation of export controls. The connection of such shipments to North Korea’s circumvention of sanctions is now less clear though, as the supposed shipments are often quite old (in some cases dating to the 1990s), or are known because authorities detected and may have stopped them.

While North Korea obviously wants sanctions lifted in the medium to long term, it has also been making contingency plans. It now has the capacity to deliver missile-mounted nuclear weapons to the United States, which it accomplished with a series of missile and nuclear tests in 2016 and 2017. And since January 2018, it has employed an on-again, off-again charm offensive to at least mitigate — although not eliminate — the effects of sanctions in the short term.

The implicit bargain that North Korea has with the United States, South Korea and China goes something like this. North Korea agrees not to engage in major provocations even as it continues (often illicit) efforts to bring in hard currency and sanctioned goods. In exchange, the United States continues to enforce but not escalate sanctions, such …continue reading