It Is Time for the U.S. to Reconsider its North Korean Sanctions Policy

Aaron Zhang, Dec 28, 2023

Recent economic pivots from North Korea put the U.S.’ continued sanctions policy under purview—amid the growing trade relations between Pyongyang and Moscow, the U.S. must carefully navigate the complex international geopolitics of the status quo. Considering North Korea’s embassy shutdowns, and recent military deals with Russia amid the Ukraine conflict, it may no longer be in the U.S.’ best interest to continue imposing stricter sanctions on Pyongyang. As long-term international isolation seems to have motivated President Kim to abandon international trade in favor of closer relations with its allies, the U.S. must reconsider its foreign policy on North Korea, leveraging negotiations with China to intervene within the North Korean-Russian military and economic alliance.


South Korea has expressed concern over North Korea closing its embassies in Uganda, Angola, Spain, and Hong Kong [1]. Given North Korea’s traditionally friendly relations with these nations, these moves to consolidate its international expenditures signal harsh economic difficulties. The North Korean Embassy of Foreign Affairs cited “state external policy” as the reason, likely referencing strong UN sanctions and a possible change of strategy on the North Korean government’s end [2]. It has become increasingly difficult for North Korea to keep international embassies open in light of strong UN sanctions, forcing its hand at finding alternative routes to stay economically afloat. Over the past decade, Pyongyang has consistently strengthened its relations with Russia and China, undoubtedly its two strongest global allies. This move may be yet another facet of this approach, streamlining its economic ties to these two international partners in place of a less profitable global model. Perhaps even more alarming, North Korea also supplied Russia with a sizable number of missiles, ammunition, and shells to assist in the war with Ukraine [3]. In return, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service has reported that North Korea is receiving technological and even nuclear support for military and spy equipment. Though Russia-North Korea economic ties may have been inevitable, military support between the countries is unprecedented and has the potential to become detrimental to international relations. Though White House national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, warned that in response to any military support to Russia, North Korea would “pay the price,” the public has yet to see any sort of explicit response from the U.S. government [4]. 


This raises the question—what can and should be done to prevent this alliance from spiraling out of control?


The American government’s struggles with effectively employing economic sanctions are longstanding—whether the purpose is North Korean denuclearization, human rights reform, or regime change, the United States has struggled to see any real shift from President Kim’s regime. Just last year, China and Russia vetoed a UN resolution to expand sanctions on North Korea [5]. This is not a surprise, as Russia and China have long expressed their discontent with Western sanctions, explicitly stating they will not be supporting any further expansion. Given the growing relationship between Russia and Pyongyang, it is foreseeable that future vetoes may occur on military policy, further putting into doubt the success of sanctions in inducing nonproliferation. If North Korea has persisted in nuclear weapons testing thus far, under what circumstances is it plausible they will finally cave with a reliable fallback of Russian and Chinese support? It seems implausible that the answer would be further sanctions. There is no longer a need for North Korea to depend on UN allies for economic support, thus skirting sanctions has become a relatively trivial challenge.


The dangers of a Russia-North Korea military alliance, on the other hand, is an unfamiliar situation. Not only can North Korea continue assisting Russia in the ongoing war in Ukraine, but Russia can also provide Pyongyang with long-needed military technology and weapons systems [6]. This accompanied by established Chinese support would embolden North Korea’s military testing, maneuvers, and activity. A coalition between these countries would mark a much stronger front against the UN and Western allies, setting the stage for what could become a disastrous situation with immense potential for flaring tensions. It seems, then, that American sanctions have actually indirectly resulted in increased North Korean proliferation. This further complicates the relationship between Washington and Pyongyang, making it improbable for any future discussions to be successful. With multiple hotspots for escalation including the Korean peninsula, Ukraine, and the United States, a heartened North Korean military is an unrivaled political anomaly that the world is unprepared to address. 


Given China’s historical ties with North Korea, it seems that the solution lies in Chinese intervention rather than multilateral sanctions. China is both Russia and North Korea’s largest trading and military ally and their alliance is bolstered by Putin's belief that any deal conducted with North Korea must be in accordance with President Xi’s goals [7]. It is widely believed that Russia cannot afford to be on unfavorable terms with China, meaning Beijing holds a cardinal amount of influence over its dealings. Therefore, it is in the U.S.’ best interest to signal to China that it would strongly oppose any support that Beijing gives to strengthen North Korea-Russia partnerships through the means of any economic or political leverage that the U.S. currently holds. North Korea has long been dependent on China for much of its economic endeavors, especially due to its shared border and copious trade routes [8]. While Putin cannot afford to anger President Xi, it's even more apparent that President Kim holds his relationship with Beijing in high regard, undoubtedly taking precedence over his relationship with Moscow. The potential for the North Korean economy along its Northern border is far more productive than the alliance with Russia holds, meaning only China can sway both of these powers in their newfound partnerships. It is in the best interest of global geopolitics for the U.S. to pivot to increasing pressure on China to intervene with the alliance, not directly posturing to North Korea. The attitude of both Putin and Kim towards Washington is staunchly negative, making confrontation likely futile and perhaps counterproductive. If Washington wishes to prevent an emboldened North Korea and Russia with adequate military capabilities, it must turn its attention away from its traditional sanctions strategy to a resolute diplomatic negotiation with China. 


[1] Borowiec, Steven. “North Korea Turns Further Inward with Embassy Closures.” Nikkei Asia, November 2, 2023.

[2] Gallo, William. “North Korea Closes 4 Diplomatic Missions, Suggesting Economic Woes.” Voice of America, November 3, 2023.

[2] “North Korea Likely Sent Millions of Shells, Missiles to Russia, Seoul Says.” Voice of America, November 2, 2023.

[4] Yeung, Jessie. “US Warns North Korea Would ‘pay a Price’ for Any Arms Deal with Russia.” CNN, September 6, 2023.

[5] Einhorn, Robert, Jung H. Pak, Zia Qureshi Hyeon-Wook Kim, Andrew Yeo, and Victor Cha Andrew Yeo. “Why Further Sanctions against North Korea Could Be Tough to Add.” Brookings, May 4, 2021.

[6] Snyder, Scott. “The Perils of a Renewed North Korea-Russia Relationship.” Council on Foreign Relations. September 7th, 2023.

[7] Doyle, Kevin. “China Key to Preventing Possible Russia, North Korea Arms Deal, Expert Says.” Al Jazeera, September 14, 2023.

[8] Frank, Ruediger, 38 North, and Derek Grossman. “Rethinking Sanctions against North Korea: Strategic Shifts and Their Implications - 38 North: Informed Analysis of North Korea.” 38 North, May 19, 2022.