Report

Biden Team Fears North Korean Sanctions Aren’t Biting

U.S. sanctions are in tatters, and China doesn’t want the United Nations imposing more.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
An unidentified rocket is displayed during a military parade.
An unidentified rocket is displayed during a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, on April 15, 2017. Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. State Department is concerned that United Nations member states lack the ability to fully implement sanctions on North Korea, according to a report obtained by Foreign Policy. The report is a sign that U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is looking to restore the sanctions network that fell apart during the last several years of failed nuclear talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. 

In the report, submitted to Congress in April, the State Department conceded to lawmakers that the lack of international capacity to help make sanctions bite is “one of the most significant challenges to full implementation.” Officials said the agency was pushing on U.S. allies to slap more North Korean entities with sanctions.

“We urge those with domestic and/or regional sanctions authorities to designate additional targets under those authorities,” the State Department told Congress in the April report. 

The U.S. State Department is concerned that United Nations member states lack the ability to fully implement sanctions on North Korea, according to a report obtained by Foreign Policy. The report is a sign that U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is looking to restore the sanctions network that fell apart during the last several years of failed nuclear talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. 

In the report, submitted to Congress in April, the State Department conceded to lawmakers that the lack of international capacity to help make sanctions bite is “one of the most significant challenges to full implementation.” Officials said the agency was pushing on U.S. allies to slap more North Korean entities with sanctions.

“We urge those with domestic and/or regional sanctions authorities to designate additional targets under those authorities,” the State Department told Congress in the April report. 

The move to recommend additional targets appears to be a continuation of U.S. strategy that was briefly halted when former U.S. President Donald Trump courted Kim. During the Obama administration, the United States had begun a vigorous diplomatic campaign to provide U.S. partners with information on entities to slap with sanctions, experts said, but it faced pushback from some allies who worried that collaborating could risk the disclosure of sensitive sources and methods, the bread and butter of foreign intelligence work.

Even as the Biden administration has stated its renewed interest in revamping the sanctions network, there are concerns that U.S. targeting has atrophied since June 2018, the last time Trump imposed sanctions. North Korea has imposed strict border controls during the coronavirus pandemic that some experts have equated as akin to self-sanctions, causing a more than 4 percent economic contraction last year. 

Yet without newly targeted sanctions from the Biden team, some experts worry the United States is falling behind in the shell game of hitting North Korean entities responsible for counterfeiting, money laundering, and other under-the-radar activities Kim’s regime uses to drum up cash—and international partners may not take it seriously either. 

“If the police chief isn’t coming down to the precinct and making sure we’re doing our job, why don’t I just stay in the precinct eating donuts?” said Bruce Klingner, the senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. 

“It doesn’t matter to the U.S., and therefore, why should they bother?” Klingner added. 

In the April report, the State Department told Congress it is offering training to help foreign governments and private sector companies identify and stop North Korean money laundering and commercial activities, including coal and minerals trade, luxury goods, and arms trafficking. The agency did not immediately respond to Foreign Policy’s request for comment. The State Department told Congress the efforts are primarily aimed at preventing North Korea from grabbing extra revenue from its weapons programs. 

Although the Biden team has offered the North Korean leader a chance to join fresh nuclear talks without preconditions, the Hermit Kingdom seems to be taking a tougher tack. On Wednesday, North Korea said it had successfully test-launched a new hypersonic missile, just days after the communist country’s U.N. envoy demanded the Biden administration end joint military exercises with South Korea and stop deploying new military assets to the region. 

U.S. strategy to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, which legally remains at war nearly 70 years after the conflict ended in a stalemate that split the country in two, has not prevented Pyongyang from seeking military help for its nuclear and missile programs and, in some cases, violating the arms embargo, according to the United Nations Panel of Experts. 

The State Department and other U.S. government agencies have been frustrated by China’s continued pushback against further sanctions in the United Nations Security Council. The United States has been blocked from pushing ahead with deflagging 23 vessels and designating 50 different entities or individuals for sanctions, the agency said. Some accuse China of ignoring North Korea trading on their soil or waters and being increasingly confrontational with the United States on Pyongyang. 

“They don’t see it as in their interest, and they see it clearly as transactional, doing a favor for the United States,” said Victor Cha, a senior vice president and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former National Security Council director for Asian affairs. 

The message from China has been: “If you want us to help you on North Korea, then you have to make concessions in our bilateral relations,” Cha added.

With North Korea further ramping up nuclear testing, some experts fear the Biden administration is ill-prepared to reengage North Korea in diplomatic talks, a situation that could lead to another tense standoff between the nuclear powers. 

“If North Korea does like an [intercontinental ballistic missile] test or something, I’m not certain this administration’s response is going to be ‘OK, now, let’s do diplomacy to take down the crisis,’” Cha said. “And then we’re on new ground. Then are we headed back to 2017, fire and fury? I don’t know where we’re headed at that point.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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