Understanding North Korea sanctions: Introduction


I wrote this page to help explain North Korea sanctions to those want to understand them better. For those who don’t know me, I’m just a poor Jewish redneck from a small town in South Dakota who went to law school, joined the Army, was stationed in South Korea, became interested in North Korea, got out of the Army, and moved to Washington, D.C. I began studying and writing about sanctions law in my spare time. So that’s the story of how I became South Dakota’s foremost authority on North Korea. (Yes, this is actually my hobby. You’re welcome, humanity.)

Ten years later, through a series of coincidences, the House Foreign Affairs Committee asked me to help design, negotiate, and draft the first comprehensive North Korea sanctions law, the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act or NKSPEA, which President Obama signed into law in February 2016. (Afterward, the Committee Chairman, Ed Royce, wrote me this nice thank you letter because he’s such a mensch.)


[Not bad for someone who used to live here. Thank you, America for making that possible.]

It’s never hard for reporters to find Korea studies scholars, ex-diplomats, arms control experts, and other aspiring Nobel Peace Prize winners who’ve never read a sanctions regulation but who are certain that North Korea sanctions can’t possibly work. Honest opposition to sanctions for policy reasons is fine, but “expert” opinion that misstates the law and misinforms the public and policymakers is not fine. There’s no excuse for that sort of lazy, half-assed journalism; after all, actual sanctions experts aren’t that hard to find.

The surest sign that an “expert” doesn’t understand North Korea sanctions is when he writes that there’s nothing left to sanction in North Korea, or that years of strong sanctions haven’t worked. In fact, until 2016, U.N. sanctions were mostly unenforced, and U.S. sanctions against North Korea (which are essential to enforcing U.N. sanctions) were weaker than our sanctions against Belarus or Zimbabwe. For a brief period when they were enforced, U.S. sanctions against North Korea were devastating to Kim Jong-il and left the North Korean people no worse off than they’d been before. Sanctions nearly crashed Iran’s economy and brought it back to the bargaining table. Unfortunately, the political will to enforce them against Kim Jong-un has been lacking (though that may be changing).

I wrote this page because, although it’s fun for me to write — and for some of you, to read — fiskings of these fake “expert” opinions, it’s probably more constructive to help those with open minds get a better understanding of the sanctions and how they work. If you just want to understand what the sanctions are, what they aren’t, how they work, and how they can work better, this page is for you. If you find this useful, please share (below), subscribe (sidebar), follow me on Twitter, or read my posts on sanctions.


U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions

U.S. Sanctions Laws

U.S. Sanctions Executive Orders

U.S. sanctions regulations & general licenses

Other significant U.S. statutes

Third-country sanctions authorities

Policy options to force disarmament and reform