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North Korea successfully tested a new intermediate range ballistic missile on Saturday – the Hwasong-12. Images released by the country’s state media suggest that the test involved a more advanced missile first revealed at a military parade in Pyongyang last month. Since assuming power in 2011, Kim Jong-Un has embarked on an extensive program of missile tests. The “substantial advance” showcased in this recent test, and the DPRK’s accelerating program more generally, raise questions about the effectiveness of technology-based sanctions as a nonproliferation tool.

North Korea’s Accelerating Missile Program

Pyongyang’s missile program has been a source of concern for the United States and the international community since the 1990s. This concern has grown as North Korea progresses toward testing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could carry a nuclear warhead to the continental United States. A North Korean ICBM test, pending any shock developments, seems to be an increasingly likely prospect in the coming years.

While accessing the technical aspects of North Korea’s program can be difficult for outside observers, different sources of information provide insights into the DPRK’s capabilities. The 2012 launch of an Unha-3 rocket that successfully placed a satellite into orbit suggested that the program was still heavily dependent on imported technologies. The UN reported that the debris, salvaged from the sea by South Korean authorities, included parts obtained from industry in at least six different countries. More recently, the DPRK’s missile engineers have allegedly sought to prevent analysts from gaining similar data.

North Korean state media images have proven to be a gold mine of information for analysts, including my colleagues at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. The April 2017 parade in Pyongyang—marking the 105th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth— showcased several new missile systems. Photographs of these missiles provided new insights into the country’s missile manufacturing capabilities. For example, my colleagues believe that the airframes of the DPRK’s Pukguksong submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) are now made of wound filament, rather than metal, suggesting a manufacturing capability beyond that demonstrated by the aluminum casings raised from the seabed in 2012.

Other images from Kim’s frequent visits to factories and manufacturing facilities demonstrate the DPRK’s acquisition and development of some of these advanced manufacturing technologies. For example, reports suggest that computer numerical control machine tools and other automated factory equipment, such as Swiss-manufactured robotic arms, have been procured from outside the country – almost certainly in breach of sanctions.

While open-source data provides some understanding of the DPRK’s technical capability, the exact balance between North Korea’s dependence on the outside world and indigenous successes remains unclear.

UN Missile-related Sanctions

To circumvent UN sanctions, and various unilateral sanctions and export controls, North Korea has resorted to illicit procurement techniques—long utilized by states seeking technology for clandestine or outlawed WMD programs. North Korea has used international trade, alongside state-owned and operated procurement and transportation networks, to supply its missile and other WMD programs. North Korean agents – and a host of middlemen, traffickers, financiers, and shippers – have been successful in the country’s sanction-busting activities.

Significant limitations of the sanctions regime are largely the product of lax implementation in many countries around the world. As North Korea’s largest trading partner and neighbor, China has been central to these discussions. China hosts a significant manufacturing base for missile-related technologies – both inside state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that form the basis of China’s missile and space programs, and among the growing Chinese private sector. Limited export control enforcement by the Chinese authorities has meant that some companies and middlemen have been able to supply WMD programs with little concern of punishment.

Since the turn of the century, Chinese authorities improved their export control legislation and implementation to counter North Korean illicit procurement. Four workshops I helped facilitate between 2012 and 2015 in Chinese industrial hubs raised awareness among SOEs and private sector firms dealing in alloys and composites and provided insights into China’s implementation of UN sanctions related to dual-use goods.

Elements of the Chinese government were clearly working hard to implement UN Security Council resolutions in good faith. However, the scale of the outreach challenge presented by the rapidly growing Chinese private sector capable of supplying dual-use goods is vast. The size of Chinese industry, and even of some of the SOEs, makes oversight difficult. As the Chinese proverb goes: “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.”

Conclusion: The Effectiveness of Technology-based Sanctions?

In sum, the effectiveness of technology-based sanctions as a non-proliferation tool are, and will likely remain, unclear. As last weekend’s Hwasong-12 test showed, technology-based sanctions are clearly not preventing the DPRK’s missile program from progressing. It may seem clear that – at the very least – technology-based sanctions slow technical progress and raise procurement costs. However, other research suggests that sanctions have improved North Korea’s ability to procure WMD-related goods. Gaining a full understanding of the relationship between these sanctions and DPRK’s progress on its missile program requires a more robust dataset. With North Korea’s illicit procurement, this is notoriously difficult to obtain.

Dr Daniel Salisbury is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) in Monterey. He previously worked at the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King’s College London, where under the auspices of Project Alpha he worked to organize three UN sanctions outreach workshops for Chinese industry, in Dalian, Qingdao and Tianjin between 2012 and 2014. 

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