Tightening the Economic Noose on the North Korean Regime

Tightening the Economic Noose on the North Korean Regime

by Bruce Klingner
April 13, 2017

This essay examines recent efforts to strengthen sanctions against North Korea and argues that these measures must be augmented and more consistently implemented in order to change Pyongyang’s behavior.



North Korea’s repeated violations of UN resolutions have belatedly led to a new international consensus on the need for stronger, more comprehensive sanctions. With diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang no longer a viable option, the United Nations, the European Union, the U.S., and other countries have begun to implement long-overdue punitive measures to enforce laws, curtail proliferation, and raise the cost of Pyongyang’s defiance of the international community. These augmented sanctions will fulfill near-term objectives of enforcing laws, imposing penalties on those entities that violate them, and strengthening measures to constrain both the importation and proliferation of prohibited nuclear and missile technologies. However, the long-term impact of sanctions is predicated on robust enforcement, widespread compliance, and the political will to continue on this course for sufficient time for sanctions to take effect.

  • The Trump administration should abandon the Obama administration’s policy of timid incrementalism, which never fully implemented U.S. laws and held some sanctions in abeyance, and introduce more robust measures after the next North Korean violation or provocation.
  • Washington must sharpen North Korea’s choice between suspending its nuclear program and economic isolation by raising the costs of its actions, as well as by targeting states—particularly China—that facilitate the Kim Jong-un regime’s prohibited programs and illicit activities and condone its human rights violations.
  • Little change will occur until North Korea is effectively sanctioned and China becomes concerned over the consequences of Pyongyang’s actions and abandons its own obstructionism.