About the Author
View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
With nearly six months since the Singapore summit, it’s becoming clear that sanctions are an increasingly problematic hurdle to diplomacy between North Korea and the United States.
On the surface, high-level diplomatic momentum between the two countries continues to play out. A second summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump is reportedly in the works and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will meet in New York with his counterpart Kim Yong Chol this week.
But recent DPRK state media output and U.S. government actions and remarks show that a glaring difference of opinion between the two countries is increasingly clear.
On the one hand, North Korean state media has recently argued that ongoing U.S. sanctions pressure contradicts the Singapore pledge to end “hostile relations.” Furthermore, due to American inflexibility on potential sanctions relief, Pyongyang said Friday it may reintroduce nuclear weapons development as a core state priority.
On the other hand, Trump used his UN General Assembly speech to make clear that “sanctions will stay in place until denuclearization occurs,” Treasury continued its ongoing sanctions maintenance campaign by issuing new designations in early October, and the State Department rejected a joint Russian, Chinese, and DPRK call for UN sanctions relief on October 11.
And though Kim Jong Un offered the prospect of major nuclear concessions during September’s Pyongyang Summit, they were conditional on the U.S. “taking corresponding actions based on the spirit of the North Korea-U.S. joint statement of June 12.” Consequently, this clash of perspective on sanctions – if left unresolved – risks reducing the chance that Pyongyang delivers some of its most important denuclearization pledges.
At the same time, the longer North Korea holds back from further missile and nuclear testing, the more likely it is that international calls for UN sanctions relief will grow. But if skepticism about DPRK intent prevails, what is to come of inter-Korean relations – in increasing need of exemptions to evolve beyond planning stages?
Furthermore, are there any alternatives which can foster goodwill and elicit further denuclearization progress from North Korea absent sanctions relief? Or if sanctions relief is ultimately unavoidable, what are the areas the U.S. might be able to consider without losing too much leverage?
And above all, what happens next if growing U.S.-DPRK discord is left to fester on this issue?
A CASE FOR UN SANCTIONS RELIEF?
While the U.S. regularly insists that there can be no sanctions relief until full denuclearization, the final paragraphs of multiple UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions on North Korea include language that describes how things could be altered short of that.
“(The UNSC) affirms that it shall keep the DPRK’s actions under continuous review and is prepared to strengthen, modify, suspend or lift the measures as may be needed in light of the DPRK’s compliance, and in this regard, expresses its determination to take further significant measures in the event of a further DPRK nuclear test or launch,” says the penultimate paragraph of resolution 2397, the last sanctions issued by the UN.
With the UNSC making a connection between testing and the expansion of further sanctions, it seems the nearly year-long period since the DPRK’s last missile test – combined with Kim Jong Un’s April 2018 pledge to enact a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests – is for some sufficient to “modify” UN sanctions, at least?
It would seem this may have been behind recent trilateral foreign ministry calls by Russia, China, and North Korea to loosen sanctions. That logic doesn’t work for everyone, however.
“Recall that the Chinese boxed themselves in a little bit on sanctions by agreeing to them in a multilateral format in which the U.S. exercises a veto,” said Stephen Haggard, an NK News contributor and professor at UCSD, adding that the U.S. would “only likely agree to the cancellation of all past nuclear UNSC resolutions when it is satisfied with respect to progress on the nuclear front.”
Further, Washington’s position seems to be reflected by others in the UNSC, meaning this is currently an unlikely channel for sanctions relief.
“Judging by the reception of Moon Jae-in’s recent European tour, France and the United Kingdom hew the same position as the United States: no sanctions relief until North Korea delivers in full on the stated demands of the Security Council,” said Joshua Pollack, a Senior Research Associate at the Middlebury Institute of International studies.
Above all, Fletcher School Professor Sung-yoon Lee said the period of non-testing was historically insufficient to justify any potential reduction of UN sanctions relief.
“DPRK precedents don’t lend credibility to relaxing sanctions at the present time, after not even a full year of abstention from missiles launches and only 13 months after Pyongyang’s last nuclear test,” he said.
That’s because North Korea has refrained from long-range missile tests and nuclear tests for much longer periods in the past, Lee said.
“For example, the DPRK refrained from long-range missile tests from April 5, 2009, to April 13, 2012 (3 years), and again from December 12, 2012, to February 7, 2016 (3 years). The DPRK also refrained from nuclear tests from May 25, 2009, to Feb 12, 2013 (nearly 3 years), and from the latter date to Jan 6, 2016 (nearly 3 years).”
Because of this, Andray Abrahamian – Koret Fellow Lecturer at Stanford University – said that the North would need to provide “more proof that there really won’t be any more testing” to convince doubters of its future intent.
One way to do this?
“The DPRK could strengthen its case that no more testing will happen by allowing inspectors to Punggye-ri.”
Another consideration: the DPRK’s stated reason for stopping missile and nuclear tests.
“Pyongyang’s public statements tell us that the cessation of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile testing is not because the North intends to give up these capabilities, but rather because the DPRK has completed the development of its “deterrent” and no longer needs to test,” said Evans Revere, for decades one of the U.S. State Department’s top Asia experts.
As a result, sanctions relief would at this point be “dangerous” because it “would confirm Pyongyang in its belief that better relations can be achieved even while remaining a de facto nuclear weapons state,” Revere added.
William Newcomb, the former U.S. member of the UN’s Panel of Experts on North Korea sanctions implementation, agreed that Washington currently needs much more.
“Sanctions are adopted to persuade the DPRK to abandon nuclear, other WMD and ballistic missile programs as well as return to NPT and IAEA safeguards,” he said. “Simply stopping tests at this juncture, while welcome, is far from sufficient in my view to justify a rollback or easing of sanctions.
But while Korea Risk Group director Dr. Andrei Lankov said the test pause means some sanctions “modifications are (now) justifiable” – and former U.S. nuclear negotiator recently told NK News that keeping sanctions up until full denuclearization is not a “realistic” approach – U.S. officials do not agree.
“The Security Council resolutions call for more than a suspension of nuclear and missile tests,” a U.S. Department of State official told NK News.
“They call for the DPRK to immediately abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner, and immediately cease all related activities; and abandon any other existing weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.”
And only after such steps are taken will the U.S. be able to consider talking about sanctions relief, the official said.
If Washington is truly uninterested in modifying sanctions absent realization of the lofty goal of “full denuclearization,” consequences already emerging in the realm of inter-Korean relations are likely to grow.
Requiring either a country-specific exemption or changes to both unilateral-U.S. and UN sanctions regimes to further most forms of inter-Korean cooperation, Seoul is currently absent both.
As a result, ROK foreign minister Kang’s aborted interest in lifting ‘May 24’ inter-Korean sanctions and President Moon’s attempt to persuade five European leaders surrounding eventual sanctions relief imply South Korea is increasingly looking for flexibility to maintain diplomatic momentum with the North.
But there is no sign that any flexibility may be on the cards.
“The U.S. and the ROK seem to be at loggerheads when it comes to the path forward with North Korea,” said Revere.
“Even as the United States re-emphasizes its sanctions and pressure campaign, the ROK is lobbying for the easing of sanctions, arguing that sanctions easing should precede denuclearization rather than the other way around.”
Describing Moon as being “under tremendous pressure,” Haggard said U.S. inflexibility would leave Seoul only “scope to do things like the military agreement, which is clearly not popular among the right and military…(or) something that is entirely prospective like ‘study teams’ on various issues or agenda-setting talks.”
But while Lankov said that the growing clash would “sooner or later… create massive hurdles,” the problem was worsening because Seoul was not being honest with the U.S. about the true prospects for inter-Korean diplomacy.
Suggesting that South Korea had been overselling the process to make it “more difficult for hard-liners in Washington to steer the U.S. back to the ‘fire and fury’ policy,” Lankov said that should American distaste for DPRK diplomacy nevertheless resume, Seoul would find itself in a hard place: “it cannot afford a conflict with the U.S, but it cannot support a hard-line which could put it in (local) danger.”
Some observers, however, believe it is likely that inter-Korean cooperation will ultimately move ahead, regardless of American concerns.
“I expect the Moon administration to forge ahead next year with the resumption of inter-Korean projects… (the) violation of UNSCR and U.S. sanctions law notwithstanding,” said Professor Lee. “South Korea has long believed that inter-Korean relations are “unique” issues that make Seoul’s actions exempt from international law or norms.”
That’s what Newcomb worries about: “As far as the ROK is concerned, lip service on UN sanctions is insufficient and it would be deplorable should violations proceed with a wink and a nod.”
As a result, he recommended that sanctions breaches be met with “consequential reaction by the U.S.” and that banks in South Korea consider secondary American sanctions and the lesson of “what happened to European banks that assisted Iran in violation of sanctions.”
But while Lee agreed that inter-Korean cooperation might “trigger periods of tension in U.S.-ROK relations,” he asked: “What will the U.S. do? Sanction Seoul or cut off diplomatic relations?” As a result of the low likelihood of costly American responses, “the Moon administration will feel rather emboldened to forge ahead with implementing subvention schemes.”
BUILDING CONFIDENCE IN OTHER WAYS
If the U.S. means what it says and is really resistant to considering all forms of sanctions relief for the foreseeable future, how else can Washington keep negotiations moving forward?
The question has growing importance in light of a DPRK foreign ministry-linked think tank warning on Friday which said Pyongyang “will not move even 1 mm (further)” unless the U.S. offers a “corresponding reply” to its recent “proactive and good-will measures”.
Building on recent inter-Korean cooperation at the DMZ, one approach could see Washington focus instead on measures surrounding conventional military threat.
“So far, Seoul has led the way on negotiating conventional military confidence-building measures (with) Washington’s only role being to agree to suspend combined military exercises,” said Pollack. And this means that Pyongyang is “enjoying the benefits of a less tense conventional military situation without having made material concessions on the nuclear front, beyond its moratorium on testing.”
Consequently, the U.S. might be able to negotiate a package “containing further moves on conventional military issues (with) further moves on nuclear issues… possible,” Pollack continued.
Furthermore, this would mean that Seoul and Washington would need to “hammer out a common negotiating position, rather than continuing to proceed on separate tracks in dealings with the North.”
American gestures in other areas unrelated to sanctions might also be able to keep the ball moving forward, Haggard said.
“Among the interim steps that the U.S. could consider would be things like a declaration on the end of the Korean war or even something symbolic like opening a U.S. consular office”.
However, Pollack pointed out that while “Washington might be amenable to exchanging a peace declaration for something less than full and final denuclearization… if Pyongyang is willing to make such a transaction, it’s not apparent in any public statement to date.”
And there are other measures which could meanwhile help improve trust and relations between the two countries – one of the Singapore goals that Pyongyang accuses Washington of overlooking in its prioritization of denuclearization – though strictly speaking they would require modifications to the non-economic components of America’s unilateral sanctions regime.
“The recent toughening of U.S. restrictions on NGOs is an easy one to relax and would be welcomed by many,” Newcomb suggested, referencing a recent but seemingly unofficial American measure that prevents U.S. humanitarian groups from visiting North Korea.
In addition, it could be useful for Washington to “signal readiness to financially and technically support DPRK conversion of weapons programs to alternative peaceful civil activities, i.e. a modified Nunn-Lugar.”
Meanwhile, “lifting the travel ban on U.S. citizens would make sense” as a trust-building measure, said Abrahamian, referencing Washington’s recent decision to extend the ban on American citizens visiting North Korea for another year.
While such measures would certainly not be enough to stimulate denuclearization, they might help in their own modest ways to improve broader U.S.-DPRK relations, a necessary precursor for progress on the nuclear issue for Abrahamian.
“Fundamentally, (there is a need for) a changed political relationship between the U.S. and the DPRK: changed to a point where even framing things as concessions doesn’t make sense.”
And without this, “full denuclearization is hard to imagine,” because if a state of war prevails between the two countries, “it will be hard to imagine inspectors running around North Korea freely and every nuclear scientist in an alternative employment program”.
SANCTIONS RELIEF OPTIONS
Should North Korea be convinced of making tangible progress towards denuclearization, it is widely thought that some form of sanctions relief would be necessary from the U.S. side – even if DPRK steps fall short of the ‘full denuclearization’ officially required by American officials.
In order to secure further progress, it is therefore important that the U.S. become more flexible on this optics surrounding this issue, several observers said.
“Progress is possible, but not while Washington insists on getting everything up front,” said Pollack about the growing ‘catch 22’ situation.
And describing the U.S. approach of “all or nothing” as “a recipe for nothing,” he said that “unless the meaning of ‘complete denuclearization’ can be finessed somehow, or until (Washington) reassesses its strategy, the deadlock will continue.”
In this regard, Revere said it is important for the U.S. to describe a “clear road map towards better relations, sanctions relief, threat reduction, and normalization of relations that the U.S. would follow if the DPRK denuclearizes.”
As a result, “the U.S. should not insist that concessions will only be made after the North denuclearizes,” he continued. “Rather, the U.S. should make clear what it would do in response to major, credible, verifiable, and irreversible steps that the North takes towards denuclearization.”
But while American officials keep insisting there can be no sanctions relief until full DPRK denuclearization, Professor Lee pointed out that the legal conditions to alter unilateral U.S. sanctions do not require such an extreme goal.
“The conditions for U.S. suspension and, ultimate termination of sanctions, are stipulated in Sections 401 and 402 of the 2016 North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act,” he said.
“Should North Korea fully account for Japanese abductees or completely dismantle its Yongbyon site, the U.S. could reasonably suspend sectoral sanctions for one year until further progress on the dismantlement of all WMD programs and compliance on the release of political prisoners.”
Lee said, however, that President Trump is unlikely “informed of the statutory conditions for the suspension and termination of sanctions” or simply “doesn’t care”.
In the event the U.S. eventually defines a pool of North Korean actions that could officially lead to partial sanctions relief absent “full denuclearization” – or if Washington alternatively chooses to eventually turn a blind eye to certain types of proscribed activities – there are a wide range of areas that could be considered to reduce pressure.
“I hope for some ad hoc relaxation of sanctions which will allow South Korea to engage in some economic interaction with the North,” said Lankov, when ask what kind of relief he would find most preferable.
“Under the best possible scenario one can hope even for Kaesong Industrial Park and/or Kumgang Tourist Zone being restarted.”
Likewise, Pollack pointed out that the “the UN’s 1718 Committee can waive sanctions on a case-by-case basis, if all its members agree.” That way, for example, “the inter-Korean road and rail project envisioned in the Panmunjom summit statement conceivably might be permitted to go ahead without a relaxation of any provisions of the sanctions regime”.
For his part, Abrahamian said that two provisions of the UN sanctions should be removed “as soon as possible.” Namely, these firstly included, “the ban on textiles, which has a wide range of DPRK actors involved and (as a sector) employs perhaps 100,000 women, providing livelihoods.” And secondly, “the ban on joint ventures, since it is unenforceable.”
By doing so the U.S. would have “given up something that really never should have been included in the first place – but does cause some economic hardship – and then something that has mostly been ignored, so hasn’t had much impact anyway.”
And while Newcomb said he believed the current U.S. position should prevail “through initial diplomatic negotiations” to avoid surrendering leverage, in the event of North Korean provision of “(nuclear inventory) lists, inspection access, etc. some quid pro quo might be deserved and forthcoming.”
In such an event, “some of the (UN) restrictions on major exports would be early candidates for easing of UN sanctions,” he said, with “coal… a good candidate that would get support from Russia and China” and “textiles (being) another candidate”.
Further, “should the DPRK show signs of serious intent to change, preliminary steps could be taken to modify finance sanctions as well, if accompanied by structural and procedural reforms called for to comply with Financial Action Task Force regulations, particularly on anti-money laundering and proliferation financing,” he said.
ABSENT EVENTUAL AMERICAN FLEXIBILITY?
In the event that U.S. policy-makers decide to continue demanding full denuclearization as the condition for any form of sanctions reduction, the risk the current line of diplomacy runs its course is very likely to increase. And that poses unique consequences not just for Washington, but for North Korea, too.
Firstly, long-term sanctions rigidity risks creating diplomatic isolation for America, should it be seen by a widening audience as creating the main stumbling block to diplomatic progress. This is especially likely to be the case in the event North Korea responds to a period of sustained U.S. inflexibility by continuing to express ‘good behavior’: a long-term non-testing of nuclear and missile devices.
“I could see Washington overplaying its sanctions hand…and seeing Seoul and Beijing start to find ways around sanctions, daring the U.S. to go after everybody at once,” explained Abrahamian of such a risk. “
You’re seeing this happen with Iran, where the EU, Russia and China are creating a “special purpose vehicle” to facilitate payments to Iran in ways that don’t violate U.S. sanctions.”
Secondly, even if most currently agree that Washington is unlikely to be able to regain as much multilateral support for hardline policies as was the case in 2017, a U.S. reboot of ‘Maximum Pressure’ and increased military threat is likely to create potential for worsening economic and security problems for North Korea.
“We have seen a taste for this back in 2017: U.S. threats, hints at the possibility of military actions, ‘secondary sanctions’ targeting Chinese and other companies, bellicose rhetoric,’ said Lankov.
“Most likely, this policy will yield little results, even though relations between Washington and Seoul will deteriorate dramatically and there is a chance it will provoke a military conflict in North East Asia.”
But this in and of itself remains unlikely to stimulate denuclearization.
“The DPRK will tolerate a lot (because) they have reasons to be afraid of confrontation,” said Lankov. “No matter what their propagandists yell about, the North Korean leaders know they cannot afford a direct military conflict with the U.S.”
And because of this, he argued, “the policy of Pyongyang will be about winning time, making promises, hinting at possibilities of compromise, driving wedges between Donald Trump and his bureaucrats, etc.”
Revere agreed, suggesting that “Kim Jong Un has shown an impressive understanding of President Trump.”
That’s because Kim “may believe that as long as he avoids nuclear and missile testing and holds out the prospect of denuclearization, that may be enough to satisfy an American president eager to achieve a foreign policy “victory,” even if the victory is a hollow and illusory one.”
And as a result of Trump having this year “taken force off the table, there is a real question about whether U.S. leverage on North Korea is declining,” continued Revere. “North Korea understands this, and may believe it can achieve its goal of being accepted as a de facto nuclear state.”
The result, then, if negotiations all eventually fall apart?
“Have a policy review, and be more resigned to accepting North Korea as a nuclear state,” said Professor Lee. “Seriously.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCTV
With nearly six months since the Singapore summit, it’s becoming clear that sanctions are an increasingly problematic hurdle to diplomacy between North Korea and the United States.
On the surface, high-level diplomatic momentum between the two countries continues to play out. A second summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump is reportedly in the works and U.S.