How North Korea successfully defies sanctions

Evading sanctions is a matter of survival for the North Korean regime.

North Korea is successful in defying increasingly harsh trade sanctions imposed by the United Nations and other countries for its development and testing of nuclear missiles, primarily through ship-to-ship transfers.  A North Korean defector tells Sunny Um, our South Korea correspondent, that the country is not likely to surrender to those sanctions any time soon.

North Korea has been evading international sanctions as the regime sees it as a matter of survival as the profit gained from the illicit trade is used to finance its nuclear ambition which is seen as a deterrence against foreign aggression.  

The methods used to continue illicit trading are becoming increasingly sophisticated and difficult to trace, according to the report made by a UN panel of experts (PoE) published on 28 September.

While some question the effectiveness of sanctions to pressure North Korea, a North Korean defector tells Maritime Fairtrade that the country’s efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction are likely to continue, despite the sanctions,into the next year as well.

For the past few years, North Korea has violated these sanctions, helped in no small part by some countries turning a blind eye, as it carried out some large-scale smuggling activities to buy and sell prohibited goods. A UN PoE report says most of those activities happened in the sea.

“The country continues to defy Security Council resolutions through a massive increase in illegal ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products and coal,” the report stated. 

North Korean tankers disguise their vessels by masking the identity or sending false Automatic Identification System transmissions. Other methods include using small or unregistered vessels; changing the names of vessels; and transferring at night.

The situations around COVID-19 could not stop the country from violating the sanctions, too. North Korea coal smugglers made more than 33 shipments between March and early May this year.

Also, the PoE said that in the first few months of 2020 alone, the country possibly exceeded the yearly fuel cap of 500,000 barrels imposed by the UN. The estimation is based on 56 refined petroleum product shipments that happened from January to May. These shipments are expected to have transferred more than 1.6 million barrels.

China and Russia said that the PoE’s findings are based on speculations of UN member States, with no strong evidence that North Korea has evaded the sanctions.

Still, the US announced its plan to stop China from importing North Korean coals on 8 December. On the following day, the Treasury Department blacklisted six companies and four ships, accused of illicit ship-to-ship transfers of North Korean coals. 

North Korea will continue to develop WMD

Some experts question the effectiveness of international sanctions imposed by the UN and other countries, as Pyongyang continues to trade clandestinely and persists on pursuing nuclear power.

Kim Pil-ju, a North Korean defector, says that North Korea will continue the development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) despite the sanctions on trade.

“If North Korea gives up on nuclear dominance, that will mean the country surrenders to the international pressure,” said Kim, during an interview with Maritime Fairtrade.

“This means that the country admits that its political system, dictatorship, and violation of human rights are wrong. North Korea will not want that to happen.”

Kim also says that it is important to understand where North Korea stands in international society, as the country believes that nuclear power is the only method to survive against other countries. 

“North Korea maintains its nuclear power, not as a threat to the US and the rest of the world. It’s for survival,” Kim said.

“North Korea does not trust what the other countries say about other methods to survive. I doubt that North Korea would even listen or follow the suggestions from the international organizations led by the US, as it sees the US as an enemy.”

Still standing after harsh sanctions 

The UN Security Council has passed a dozen resolutions to sanction North Korea since 2006. The sanctions are imposed for the development of WMD, which includes nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The sanctions also are expected to cut Pyongyang’s funding for WMD programs.

These sanctions prohibit Pyongyang from the trade of arms and military equipment; operating the national nuclear program; the export of coal or minerals; and the import of oil and refined petroleum products, among other actions.

Since 2016, the US also has taken rigorous actions against North Korea for developing WMD. For example, President Donald Trump has authorized measures as part of his “maximum pressure” campaign in the first year in his office. These measures include the ban on US’s economic activities with North Korea.

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Sunny Um

Sunny Um

Sunny, our South Korea correspondent working out of Seoul, is a journalist with a passion for community journalism and an interest in economics and politics.

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