University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

George A. Lopez

The new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has come to power in a fledgling nuclear state that thus far has resisted pressures from the West and the Security Council to denuclearize. As he scans the political horizon, Kim may arrive at several conclusions about his inherited situation that affect how he thinks about his options.

His first thought might be that the demise of Iraq’s Hussein and Libya’s Gadhafi illustrates what happens to leaders who give up weapons of mass destruction. The lesson he derives might be: ‘Beware of succumbing to the sanctions and incentives of the West.’

A second conclusion could be that — despite its commitment to sanctions and pronouncements to the contrary — the West has found a way to ‘live with’ North Korea’s nuclear status. Feeding this perception is that Kim Jong Un’s father revealed in November 2010 the new uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyong. Despite this being a clear violation of Security Council Resolution 1874, there was no action or even condemning comments taken by the Council.

When Kim’s father revealed the new uranium enrichment faculty, the Security Council took no action and made no condemning statements.

A third significant factor is that the Chinese have made it clear at the Security Council that the focus for resolving the Korean crisis should be the Six-Party Talks, not further sanctions or punitive actions. Further, Chinese leaders have decided that increased economic investment and trade are not inconsistent with the ambiguities of living with the North’s nuclear program. The recently announced $3 billion investment in a new free-trade zone is a significant boost to Kim’s and his nation’s future.

Finally, Kim can see that the once favorable sanctions climate at the United Nations is eroding dramatically. The bitterness held by Russia, and to a lesser extent China, over the license taken by NATO to overthrow Gadhafi has prevented the Security Council from imposing sanctions on Syria. And thus there are few prospects for additional Security Council sanctions on North Korea.


The new North Korean leadership now has a lot more pieces on the chessboard to make moves and trade-offs than they might have expected. For the West, this means that the price of denuclearization has gone up, some of which is reflected in the recently concluded but uncertain deal between Washington and Pyongyang on foodstuffs, non-aggression pledges, and the decision to meet and talk over differences.

These realities beg the policy question: have the sanctions been successful?  The classic model of sanctions compliance, that greater economic pressure will lead to changed decisions by the leadership, was probably never viable in this case and certainly does not apply now. So we are left with secondary goals, which can play a role in the bargaining that must take place for denuclearization to occur.

Sanctions have been moderately successful in eroding North Korea’s capacity to acquire spare parts and technologies needed for the nuclear program.

A major sanctions goal is to erode North Korea’s capacity to acquire spare parts, technologies, and other materials needed to maintain and upgrade the nuclear program and expanded missile systems. The evidence suggests that efforts along these lines have had moderate success. We have seen interdictions of sea and air cargoes, but we also know that a lot of prohibited material has gotten through. In a second goal, constraining Pyongyang’s vital export of military goods and importing of luxury goods, the sanctions have been somewhat less successful.


For the future, the sanctions package will probably remain until a new security arrangement and diplomatic agreement warrants their removal. Incentives within the context of ongoing nuclear talks will become the priority. Normally this would start with the easing of sanctions pressures, but that would be only a beginning here. Meaningful incentives will need to include both economic inducements of significant scale and a grander security bargain. The latter would include nonaggression pledges between North and South Korea and with the United States.

Successful denuclearization through sanctions and incentives has always had a larger security framework. Whether in the cases of Brazil and Argentina or efforts to nip nuclear programs in South Africa or Libya, a set of security guarantees and a wider framework have provided a context in which sanctioning states and targets experience a declining need for secrecy and aggression.

This will require a high level of cooperation and dialogue between Seoul and Washington, and a mutuality of interests between Beijing and Washington that has yet to be manifest. None of these challenges are insurmountable, but they will demand creativity, political support in the capitals, and a certain alignment of political and military interests and goals that has thus far evaded all parties involved.

George A. Lopez is the Hesburgh Chair of  Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute. He recently served for 10 months on the UN Security Council Panel of Experts (SCR 1874) for Sanctions on North Korea.