This question-and-answers document sets out the sanctions regime and other diplomatic measures imposed on North Korea, Human Rights Watch’s position on sanctions, and recommendations for addressing North Korea’s human rights record. It explains how existing sanctions on North Korea operate, why they were imposed, and how they might be relaxed, lifted, or tightened.
Sanctions on North Korea include measures related to nuclear weapons proliferation activities imposed by the United Nations Security Council and some UN member states, including the United States and members of the European Union. They also include targeted economic and travel-related sanctions and measures imposed bilaterally on high-level North Korean officials for human rights reasons.
- What types of sanctions are currently imposed on North Korea?
- What is Human Rights Watch’s position on non-proliferation and human rights sanctions?
- What human rights sanctions against North Korea are currently in place?
- Do US sanctions, which only apply to US persons, companies, and financial institutions, have an effect outside of the United States?
- How do the UN sanctions work?
- Can the Security Council lift its sanctions absent any improvements in North Korea’s human rights record?
- How can US-North Korea negotiations address human rights issues?
- What concrete steps can the North Korean government take to improve human rights?
- Have existing non-proliferation sanctions been effectively enforced?
- Have sanctions harmed the North Korean people?
The primary sanctions imposed on North Korea are counter-proliferation sanctions, designed to curtail North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons development programs and prevent further weapons’ development. These measures are chiefly imposed through Security Council resolutions, but are also enforced through domestic and regional legal regimes. Besides UN sanctions, measures have also been imposed by the US, the EU, South Korea, Japan, and Australia. They include restrictions on financial dealings with particular North Korean officials and entities, as well as restrictions on travel by North Korean officials.
In addition to non-proliferation sanctions, the United States has imposed human rights-related sanctions. These are targeted economic sanctions and travel restrictions on several high-level North Korean government officials, including Kim Jong Un, in response to their role in gross human rights violations. These sanctions are not imposed on North Korea as a country but are focused on individuals and entities. South Korea, Japan, and Australia have expressed support for these measures, although they have stopped short of imposing similar restrictions in their domestic law.
The US has also imposed a small number of targeted sanctions on North Korean persons and entities implicated in cyberattacks, such as the 2014 hack of Sony Pictures, in which hackers allegedly linked to the North Korean government stole large amounts of confidential information from the movie studio and posted the information online.
Human Rights Watch supports “humanitarian disarmament,” which seeks to strengthen international humanitarian law and protect civilians from weapons that cause unacceptable harm, including weapons that are invariably indiscriminate. We also oppose cyberattacks that violate international human rights or humanitarian law. However, we have not taken a position on sanctions relating to non-proliferation or cyberattacks that are not primarily based on human rights considerations.
Human Rights Watch supports certain types of targeted sanctions (also known as “smart sanctions”) imposed on North Korean officials implicated in serious human rights abuses that restrict their military, trade, financial, economic, and other relations, as well as travel restrictions. We support individual sanctions as a way to focus directly on the individuals believed to be most responsible for abuses, while minimizing any negative impact or damage on the North Korean people themselves, who already suffer tremendously under the North Korean government.
Targeted sanctions emphasize the need for individual accountability by singling out those considered most responsible for the commission of serious human rights abuses. Targeted human rights sanctions place pressure on those responsible to end abuses, hold those responsible accountable, and deter future abuses. Such sanctions may also deter other countries, foreign actors, companies, and others from committing or becoming complicit in the abuses being perpetrated by the target government, especially when combined with efforts to investigate individual criminal responsibility for human rights violations.
As a general matter, Human Rights Watch believes that targeted sanctions are most effective and legitimate when they are imposed multilaterally (by groups of states, such as the Security Council). In its 2014 report, the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights in North Korea expressed this view, urging the Security Council to impose targeted sanctions on those considered responsible for alleged crimes against humanity. Because of opposition from China and Russia, the council did not act on those recommendations.
In cases where multilateral action is not feasible or not the most effective option, Human Rights Watch has often supported unilateral targeted sanctions. In the case of North Korea, we have urged individual countries, including the US, South Korea, China, Canada, Japan, and EU member states, to impose their own targeted sanctions on North Korean government officials.
Human Rights Watch has called on the Security Council to impose targeted sanctions on North Korean government officials implicated in serious human rights abuses, but the council has not done so. Since the release of the COI report, the council has held several public meetings on the human rights situation in North Korea during which some council member countries have raised the idea of targeted sanctions in response to human rights violations. Some states have urged the Security Council to refer the situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The council, however, remains unable to agree on a resolution that would take such actions, due to strong opposition from China and Russia, which as permanent members of the council can veto any proposed resolution.
The US has taken several steps to impose sanctions on North Korean government actors implicated in rights abuses, especially after 2015, as increasing attention was focused on North Korea because of the work of the COI. In March 2016, the Obama administration issued an executive order imposing extensive restrictions on US persons or entities engaging in transactions with any North Korean officials or entities implicated in human rights abuses. In July 2016, the US imposed individual sanctions on Kim Jong Un and several other high-level security officials, including the minister of state security, Choe Pu Il, specifically citing their complicity in human rights abuses. In January and October 2017, the US listed additional individuals and entities in its human rights sanction list, including Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister and vice director of the Workers’ Party of Korea Propaganda and Agitation Department; Kim Won Hong, the minister of state security; and Jong Yong Su, the minister of labor.
Most of these sanctions were imposed by placing officials on the US Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list, which prohibits any US person, company, or financial institution from engaging in business with the person listed and prohibits their travel to the US. The SDN list in general is used by the US government to impose sanctions on actors around the world who are implicated in criminal activity, corruption, terrorism, and gross human rights abuses. SDN listings are often imposed under a country specific statute or by a presidential Executive Order issued under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977.
In 2016, Congress also passed a law, the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, which for the first time obligated the president, as a matter of law, to investigate and list particular persons and entities involved in weapons proliferation, human rights abuses, and cyberhacking, and mandated the president to sanction them. (Previously the president was authorized to do so, but not mandated.) Specifically, the law states that the president “shall designate” any person who “knowingly engages in, is responsible for, or facilitates serious human rights abuses by the Government of North Korea,” or “knowingly engages in, is responsible for, or facilitates censorship by the Government of North Korea,” among other criteria.
In addition, the law specifically mandates that the president must “block and prohibit all transactions in property and interests in property” not only of designated persons, but also “the Government of North Korea, or the Workers' Party of Korea,” which is defined to include the government’s “agencies, instrumentalities, and controlled entities.” In other words, the president is bound by law to impose a financial ban and asset freezes on the North Korean government.
Notably, the act states that sanctions may only be suspended if North Korea is taking major steps on ending weapons proliferation and related activities, as well as “accounting for and repatriating” citizens of other countries who were abducted by North Korea, “accepting and beginning to abide by internationally recognized standards for the distribution and monitoring of humanitarian aid,” and “taking verified steps to improve living conditions in its political prison camps,” among other criteria. This means that President Trump cannot fully suspend sanctions on North Korea unless Congress agrees to repeal them.
- Do US sanctions, which only apply to US persons, companies and financial institutions, have an effect outside of the United States?
The US Treasury sanctions, while rooted in US law, can have broad international consequences. Many of the world’s main financial institutions and banks are US-based, have US affiliates, or are traded on US securities exchanges, making them subject to US law or Treasury Department regulations. Other multilateral or transnational financial institutions make use of US financial services and infrastructure. Even banks or financial institutions with no direct US ties may prohibit persons on the SDN list from accessing accounts or use of wire services, including the international SWIFT system. As a practical matter, persons on the SDN list can face major hurdles in holding or moving money through the international banking system.
Current UN sanctions on North Korea are focused solely on addressing the country’s nuclear weapons proliferation activities. Under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the UN Security Council is empowered to take measures to “maintain or restore international peace and security,” including through binding resolutions obligating UN member states to impose sanctions, travel restrictions, and weapons and economic embargoes on specific states and government officials who threaten international peace and security. In numerous past resolutions, the council has determined that the “proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, as well as their means of delivery, constitutes a threat to international peace and security.” After North Korea began testing long-range missile technology and nuclear weapons in 2006, the council began passing resolutions imposing sanctions and setting up a committee and panel of experts to monitor the measures taken.
Among the first UN measures to address proliferation activities, Security Council Resolution 1718 was passed after North Korea’s first nuclear test in October 2006. It imposed an arms embargo, prohibiting the “direct or indirect supply, sale, or transfer” to North Korea of various heavy weapons, missile systems, materials and technologies, as well as luxury goods—a measure meant to impose costs on the highest levels of the government. It also obligated UN member states to freeze the funds or financial assets of entities designated by the council as providing support for North Korea’s nuclear, missile, and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.
The four rounds of sanctions the Security Council imposed between 2006 and 2013 in response to North Korea’s first three nuclear tests and a satellite launch were aimed at its nuclear program and high-level government officials and entities. The sanctions included an arms embargo and import and export ban on related materials; empowered UN member states to seize and destroy cargo suspected to be connected to North Korea’s military; targeted North Korean officials and entities involved in the nuclear program with assets freezes and travel bans; requires banks to ban money transfers and prevent financial transfers that could contribute to the programs; and prohibited exports of luxury goods to North Korea.
Following additional nuclear tests in 2016 and 2017, the Security Council strengthened measures and imposed more sanctions in five different resolutions. These were significantly tougher than previous resolutions, imposing complete or partial prohibitions on the import of most of North Korea’s key exports. They banned the export by North Korea of gold, rare earth metals and stones, minerals and natural gas; capped exports of coal, iron, oil and all refined petroleum products; and restricted exports of electrical equipment, food, seafood, agricultural products, wood and textiles, among other things. The resolutions also added additional items to the list of prohibited dual-use technologies for import, designated additional individuals and entities subject to asset freezes and travel bans, mandated limits on overseas North Korean workers, restricted fishing rights, and prohibited various joint investment, business, and scientific projects, among other measures.
- Can the Security Council lift its sanctions absent any improvements in North Korea’s human rights record?
Yes. The Security Council can lift its sanctions at any time and for any reason. The Security Council sanctions regime was imposed for non-proliferation reasons and does not include human rights criteria either for the imposition or removal of sanctions. The sanctions allow for humanitarian and development aid to continue.
Human Rights Watch believes, however, that regardless of the reasons the current sanctions were imposed on North Korea, the UN Security Council should not be limiting sanctions solely to nuclear proliferation-related issues, but also impose them for human rights reasons. North Korea is a totalitarian state that severely restricts virtually all basic rights and freedoms and has long been responsible for crimes against humanity against the North Korean people. These are among the reasons Human Rights Watch has supported calls by the UN Commission of Inquiry for the Security Council to sanction North Korean officials specifically for their involvement in grave human rights violations.
North Korea’s nuclear program is also linked to human rights abuses. The program benefits from forced labor. Funds for military activities are obtained from remittances from the forced labor of North Koreans sent overseas. And the massive cost of the nuclear weapons program doubtlessly contributes to the massive poverty in the country, which is among the world’s poorest countries. Only one-third of North Korean homes have electricity, while around half of the population lives in extreme poverty. As stated in Security Council Resolution 2397, North Korea “continues to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles by diverting critically needed resources away from the people in the DPRK [North Korea] at tremendous cost when they have great unmet needs.”
The actions of the North Korean government also present risks to international peace and security: mass levels of abuses raise the risks of volatile destabilization in the long term and potentially enormous flight and displacement.
Promoting respect for human rights in North Korea through sanctions or other means could positively impact non-proliferation discussions. A more open North Korea that affords better cooperation with the UN could facilitate the conclusion of agreements not only on non-proliferation, but on freedom of movement, family reunion, and other human rights issues that could benefit the North Korean population.
Human Rights Watch believes that the US and other countries negotiating with North Korea on security issues should do more to focus on human rights issues. Promoting human rights in North Korea, whether through sanctions or other means, should be viewed as a fundamental aspect of any negotiations. And countries that have imposed rights-related sanctions should keep them in place until the human rights concerns they were intended to address result in genuine improvement.
As noted above, the key targeted sanctions related to human rights include the listing of high-level North Korean officials, including Kim Jong Un, on the US Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals list, for complicity in gross human rights abuses. Relaxing human rights-related sanctions and other actions related to the human rights situation without any progress by North Korea on human rights removes an important lever for improving the human rights of the Korean people and could result in greater repression.
The US, South Korea, Japan, EU member states and others should continue to use whatever influence they have on North Korea through resolutions at the UN General Assembly and UN Human Rights Council; the creation of mechanisms, such as the Commission of Inquiry, to investigate and report on North Korea’s human rights abuses; and encouraging leadership by the UN Security Council to convene sessions on North Korea’s human rights record and adopt human rights resolutions despite veto threats by China and Russia.
Governments should not lift or weaken human rights-related sanctions until North Korea proves willing to engage on human rights issues and takes concrete steps to implement longstanding recommendations from UN mechanisms to meaningfully address its human rights record.
During the proposed US-North Korea summit, the US should include human rights on the agenda and in the discussions. Human rights sanctions, such as the US Treasury Department’s SDN list, and other human rights measures, should not be lifted or weakened unless North Korean makes substantial progress on rights. Should multilateral negotiations with North Korea take place, all governments should insist that human rights concerns be officially on the agenda and actively discussed.
North Korea should immediately act to improve the fundamental human rights of the North Korean people. Concerned states should press North Korea to:
- Allow visits and unfettered access by UN agencies and offices, including the World Food Programme, the UN children’s agency (UNICEF), the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and other UN rights experts. (In 2017, North Korea allowed a visit by the special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities);
- Take immediate steps to address poor conditions and abuses in the country’s detention and prison facilities, including by allowing visits by the international humanitarian organizations, other relevant UN bodies and officials, and international nongovernmental groups;
- Engage with UN human rights mechanisms, including the upcoming UN Universal Periodic Review and a review under the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, while responding seriously to recommendations for compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which North Korea has ratified;
- Ratify other core human rights treaties including the Convention against Torture and the International Convention against Enforced Disappearance;
- Discuss with the International Labour Organization (ILO) steps for North Korea to improve workers’ rights, allow visits by ILO officials including to manufacturing areas, and ratify key ILO conventions; and
- Discuss with UN agencies and other international organizations the creation of a presence in North Korea to assist capacity building, long-term development, rule of law, the development of nongovernmental organizations and independent media, and realization of economic and social rights by ensuring access to clean water, sanitation, hygiene, food security, hospitals and essential medicines, and equal access to schools and quality education.
For several years many countries have been violating UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea, either intentionally or by inadequately enforcing or investigating actions by private actors. The UN panel tasked with monitoring the implementation of the sanctions has found violations involving China, Russia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Uganda, Nigeria, Ukraine, and Egypt, among other countries. Violations have ranged from failing to stop imports of prohibited items from North Korea, to violations of bans on sales of military technology, whether through purchases of weapons from North Korea (e.g. Uganda, Burma, Egypt) or sales of technology to North Korea (e.g. Ukraine).
Recently, the US has pressed other governments to intensify their enforcement of existing Security Council resolutions, which appears to have convinced several states, including China, to tighten their enforcement efforts.
While Human Rights Watch does not take a position on non-proliferation sanctions or their enforcement, we believe that any UN and domestic sanctions that are applied, for any reason, should be targeted and tailored to avoid bringing humanitarian harm to ordinary North Koreans. The UN Security Council has reiterated that the nine sanctions resolutions adopted since 2006 “are not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the civilian population” of North Korea.
The newest and toughest sanctions imposed in 2017 negatively affected the North Korean economy on a macroeconomic level. UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said that, “sanctions may be adversely affecting the essential help” that UN agencies and aid groups were providing as a “life-line” for some 13 million vulnerable North Koreans. In December 2017, Zeid warned that controls over international banking transfers imposed as a part of the non-proliferation sanctions regime have caused a slowdown in United Nations ground operations, affecting the delivery of food rations, health kits and other humanitarian aid. Zeid asked council members to conduct an assessment of the human rights impact of sanctions and see that action is taken to minimize their adverse humanitarian consequences.
It is less clear how sanctions imposed for non-proliferation reasons affect the day-to-day lives of North Koreans. There is little or no evidence that human rights-related targeted sanctions have caused significant humanitarian hardship on the people of North Korea.
Ultimately, responsibility for the poverty and deprivation faced by North Koreans rests with the totalitarian rule of the Kim dynasty since coming to power 70 years ago. The government’s poor governance, mismanagement of agrarian policies, prioritization of the elite and military over the general population, and misguided economic policies have contributed to the country’s egregious economic situation.