Why did sanctions against North Korea’s missile program fail?

A man watches a TV news program showing photos published in North Korea's Rodong Sinmun newspaper of North Korea's new type of cruise missile launch, at Seoul Railway station in Seoul, South Korea June 9.

North Korea’s successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), allegedly with the capability to hit Alaska, is the latest in a series of significant advances for the country’s missile program.

North Korea has been seeking to develop long-range missile technology for over 20 years. For much of this period, the international community has been trying to stop that from happening.

My research on how states illegally obtain missile technologies and my experience conducting outreach related to UN sanctions give me some insight into the methods North Korea used to make illicit procurements and the limitations in using technology-based sanctions to prevent them.

Technology-based sanctions

In 2006 – following North Korea’s first nuclear test – the UN Security Council prohibited the “supply, sale or transfer” of “items, materials, equipment, goods and technology” that could contribute to the country’s missile program.

Efforts to prevent North Korea’s acquisition of missile technology by certain nations – notably the United States – were underway by the 1990s. However, the UN sanctions went further by placing standardized legal requirements on all states to prevent the development of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction programs.

These sanctions are “universal” – obligatory for all states around the world. However, each nation is responsible for implementation within its borders. Missile, nuclear and military technologies are regulated through national export control systems. Exports of certain goods and technologies need to be granted an export license by the government. This allows governments to do a risk assessment on transactions and minimize the diversions to undesirable uses, such as WMD programs or human rights abuses.

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