What North Korea sanctions? Busting the myths in five charts and one long essay.

Bruce Klingner, Professor Lee, and I have a new piece out in Foreign Affairs, in which we continue to ask the question, “What North Korea sanctions?” As regular readers know, I’ve spent the last several years waging | a jihad | against junk analysis and fake expertise about North Korea and sanctions, usually from people who don’t bother to read or research them, and who often flat-out misrepresent what they are and do. These people feel compelled to argue that sanctions can’t work because the possibility | that | they | can | work undercuts the argument that we should keep trying to appease our way out of this problem. For reasons that must be more psychological than empirical, some people are just stuck on the idea that we can only seize the Holy Grail by building that Large Wooden Badger, and that sanctions are an impediment to diplomacy rather than an enabler of it.

I keep a mental tally of these people, to which I’ve added David Kang (“Given the extensive sanctions already imposed on the country, it’s hard to believe that even more pressure will somehow lead the country to choose a new direction.”), Kevin Gray (“North Korea remains one of the most heavily sanctioned states in the world today.”), and Jeffrey Lewis (“[W]e imagine that our sanctions are somehow insufficient or, more darkly, being undermined.”)

Kang and Gray are mostly polemicists anyway, so I can easily believe that neither has actually read what the U.N. Panel of Experts has published on this topic. Gray does add some useful research in his post, although (by which I mean “because”) it undercuts his conclusion that sanctions can’t work. Lewis, on the other hand, clearly has read portions of the U.N.’s reports, which is more damning, because it suggests that he’s selectively ignoring the overwhelming | evidence | thatsanctions | are | indeed | being | undermined | by | China.

Happily, we now have more data to push back this tide of misinformation. In my inbox this morning was an email from David Maxwell, pointing to a new online tool called the Enigma Sanctions Tracker, which has done something I’ve meant to do for years and never found the time to do — make a graphic, comparative representation of how North Korea sanctions stack up against other sanctions programs.  And as you can clearly see, North Korea is not the most sanctioned country … not by the range of a Taepodong II.

One important caveat here is that while the vast majority of the WMD designations are against Iran and other targets, a significant number are against North Korean targets, and a small number of third-country enablers. Note that Cuba has fallen on this list because of a large number of sanctions removals. The Zimbabwe number seems suspiciously high; I’d calculated that Zimbabwe is about on par with North Korea if you count all the North Korean ships and planes that have been designated individually. Overall, however, this looks about right to me. Here’s another graph, comparing North Korea designations (yellow) to those of other targets (light gray).

We can also see how it took a push from Congress to get the Treasury Department off the dime. The next graph notes North Korea’s third nuclear test in 2013, but doesn’t mention that shortly thereafter, Congress told the administration that it had started drafting what later passed as the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. And just look at what happened in 2016, when that law passed — a yuuuge spike in designations.

We can also see that even today, we are still not designating North Korea targets faster than we’re designating targets in the Ukraine, Russia, or Iran. This isn’t to say that those targets don’t richly deserve to be designated, but it’s certainly not because there’s | any | shortage of North Korean targets, either.

And finally, we see that China is still getting a free ride. Again, I have a small quibble here, because I don’t see any little gray dots in Dandong. Still, this is broadly accurate.

This Reuters fact-box is also useful on the subject of U.N. sanctions.

As Enigma correctly notes, the number of designations doesn’t tell the whole story. Designating a low-level retailer doesn’t have the same impact as designating the agency he reports to, and designating Kim Jong-un means nothing if we don’t go out in search of his bank accounts and apply enough muscle to the bankers to get those funds frozen. A few pictures are worth three five thousand words, but by all means read the three five thousand words, too.

One comment

  1. Dave Kang, for what its’ worth, is also just about the only person on Earth who does not believe China is retaliating for THAAD. He co-authored a book on North Korea with Victor Cha in 2003 playing dove to Cha’s hawk. He was more dovish in 2003 than one of the architects of the second Agreed Framework. I think those things settle just about how seriously we ought to take his views



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