Economic sanctions can take the form of embargoes, travel bans, asset freezes, capital restraints and trade restrictions. They have been a core part of the “maximum pressure” the U.S. and its allies have been applying to force concessions on North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program. North Korea is expected to require sanctions relief in return for the surrender of its nuclear arsenal. At his historic June 12 summit with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, U.S. President Donald Trump said sanctions would be maintained until North Korea’s nuclear program was “no longer a problem.” Ahead of their second meeting, Trump said North Korea must do something “meaningful” before the U.S. would consider any sanctions relief.

1. What sanctions are on North Korea?

United Nations sanctions started more than a decade ago with a focus on exports of military supplies and luxury goods to North Korea and grew to include bans on North Korean shipments of coal, iron ore, seafood and textiles. The UN also has asset freezes and travel bans on certain individuals and entities and has mandated that all North Koreans working abroad must return home by late 2019. After President George W. Bush declared North Korea a threat in 2008, the U.S. imposed sanctions of its own. Trump, in 2017, imposed a full trade and financial embargo that includes penalties for non-U.S. banks, companies and people that do business with North Korea. South Korea’s initial sanctions in 2010 banned most trade, most cultural exchanges and North Korean ships from South Korean waters. Japan and Australia also have sanctions on North Korea.

2. Why is China’s role so important?

It shares a border with North Korea and accounts for 90 percent of its trade. In 2017, Trump pressured China’s leaders to stop buying commodities such as iron ore, seafood and textiles. North Korea’s trade with China went down by more than 60 percent in the first quarter of 2018. China hailed the outcome of the Singapore summit, saying the talks should spur the UN Security Council to revisit sanctions. Since then, the U.S. has accused China of undermining the sanctions.

3. What effect have sanctions had?

That’s not easy to answer, as the Kim regime doesn’t publish economic statistics. As informal markets and budding entrepreneurs are allowed to develop, analysts outside North Korea are finding it even trickier to measure North Korea’s economy. The Bank of Korea in Seoul, using a mixed-bag of data and some guesswork, reckons the North’s output shrank 3.5 percent in 2017 to about $32.2 billion, or more than 40 times smaller than South Korea’s GDP. The outlook for 2018 doesn’t look good given the effect of sanctions.

4. What would it take to lift sanctions?

It’s vague, aside from Trump’s call for something “meaningful.” A special adviser to the South Korean president has said Kim would be prepared to shut the Yongbyon nuclear scientific research center and allow site inspections. If that happened and Trump responded by easing some sanctions, that would be a shift from the hard-line view advanced by U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton. He has said there would be no easing of pressure until North Korea achieves complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization, a high bar that’s sometimes shorthanded as CVID. That’s the standard that the U.S. enforced on Libya to pressure it to dismantle its nuclear-weapons program.

5. How are sanctions lifted?

The Security Council would have to vote to lift specific UN resolutions. Any one of five countries -- the U.S., China, Russia, Britain or France -- could veto such a measure, though that would be unlikely if the U.S. and its allies were on board. (China and Russia have been pushing for sanctions relief.) As for U.S. sanctions imposed by presidential executive order, such as Trump’s financial embargo, these can be lifted as well by presidential order.

6. How tightly are sanctions enforced?

Enforcement is a constant battle, and North Korea is known to have many tricks to get around the sanctions it faces, such as reportedly transferring oil between ships at sea. Trump, via Twitter and at the Singapore summit, suggested that China’s enforcement might be lapsing.

To contact the reporter on this story: David Tweed in Hong Kong at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Scott at, Laurence Arnold, Grant Clark

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