A Work Order for Sanctions Repair

A Work Order for Sanctions Repair

by Anthony Cho

North Korea’s brazen and emboldened behavior hardly needs an introduction: nuclear weapons tests, ballistic missile launches, and willful negligence in meeting the needs of its people are known to be the status quo. In hopes of curbing this history of recklessness and instill in North Korea more responsible domestic and foreign behavior, the international community has banded together multiple times to sanction and isolate the regime. Unfortunately, North Korea has proven adept at maneuvering around these sanctions to create the sanctions conundrum: the more we sanction North Korea, the better they get at bypassing them.

Sanctions are a tool of economic warfare whose goal is to induce a change in behavior—the continuation of politics by other, other means. Like any other tool of war, there is legitimate discussion to be had about the size and scope, cost and benefits, and intended and unintended consequences of sanctions. Beginning with the UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1718 in 2006 to UNSCR 2270 in 2016, a broad international consensus was forged to use sanctions to prevent North Korea from attaining the materials and technologies associated with a nuclear and ballistic missile program, as well as imposing financial and economic penalties in response to North Korea’s unrelenting pursuit of a nuclear-armed Korean Peninsula. Yet, a report titled “In China’s Shadow,” by the South Korean Asan Institute of Policy Studies and the Washington-based Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) has revealed the flaws in these sanctions with unprecedented transparency and detail.

As the title of the report suggests, Chinese entities have been providing a lifeline to keep North Korea afloat. The report identifies over 200 firms that have ties to North Korea and singled out the Hongxiang Conglomerate, which was able to amass trade worth over $500 million from 2001 to 2015, including the export of dual-use nuclear material. Although some may consider this case a failure of sanctions as a policy, this external audit proves that sanctions are not walls, but rather fences that need constant inspection and mending.

Accordingly, Chinese authorities have arrested the head of the Hongxiang Conglomerate, Ma Xiaohong, and charged her with having exported UN-banned goods to North Korea. Chinese authorities have frozen some of the company’s assets and a strict investigation seems well underway. The important step now for Chinese authorities is to have an objective and transparent judicial process against Ma and her firm to reveal the holes in the sanctions fence.

China has a history of quickly trying, convicting, and punishing leaders who commit crimes against the party. One does not need to look back to the days of Mao Zedong to find a kangaroo court. In 2011, rising star Bo Xilai was investigated for a wide range of crimes against the party and given a life sentence in 2013. In 2015, ex-security chief Zhou Yongkang also received a life sentence for corruption. Neither of these cases were transparent to outsiders, and reporters were given as little as 48-hours notice before their trials were set to begin. However, unlike these domestic tigers of corruption, Ma’s crimes put the entire international community at risk—all the countries in the crosshairs of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs deserve a seat not only in the courtroom, but throughout the investigative and judicial processes. Yet, since this accusation against Ma was brought to light, there has been no mention of this case by China or the international community writ large. The sanctions fence will never be effective unless the parties all inspect it together.

China also has much to gain from an open investigation and transparent court proceedings. Not only does this provide a new and universally supported symbol for Xi Jinping’s famed and sustained anti-corruption campaign, but China can also take a step to allay any cloak and dagger concerns that foreign investors may have about China’s adherence to the rule of law. Given the recent economic slowdowns in China associated with a normal modern economy, China must prove itself as a stable and mature market. Otherwise, capital may flee for the “next big thing” right across the border.

However, China is not the only player in this obfuscation game. The Asan/C4ADS report also mentions Singaporean sympathizers and Cambodian port authorities that help mask North Korean maritime trade. In an area that was recently crowned the world’s piracy capital, the international community must work to standardize customs and port authorities and strengthen maritime law enforcement. With states like Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines already conducting their own campaigns to combat piracy and commercial crime, potential partners for preventing and prosecuting proliferation of piracy abound. A strengthened and standardized law enforcement system should be embedded into the heart of every international agreement in an area where they are plentiful (see: ASEAN, TPP, RCEP, AIIB, etc.). The United States can lead the investment charge by ensuring any US aid tied to its $425 million Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative includes these measures.

No one stands to gain from the spread of weapons of mass destruction. As the current course of strategic patience stands pat, North Korea makes the world more dangerous day-by-day. By pushing for Chinese transparency and stronger maritime law enforcement in Southeast Asia, we can begin to induce change in North Korean behavior. To that end, the Asan/C4ADS report is not a condemnation of sanctions, but rather a work order for sanctions repair. 



About the Author

Anthony Cho is a Joseph S. Nye, Jr. National Security Intern at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He is a 2016 Fletcher MA of Law and Diplomacy graduate. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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