North Korea will “pay a price for this in the international community.” That’s how National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan responded on Tuesday to news that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who will travel to Russia this month to meet Vladimir Putin, may supply additional materiel for Moscow’s war in Ukraine. That would be an effective approach if Kim cared about his global standing. But the dear leader only responds to one thing: economic pressure that threatens his strategic priorities. And so far, the Biden administration has focused more on issuing strong rhetoric than on destroying North Korea’s revenue generation.
The Biden administration first revealed North Korea’s export of rockets and missiles to the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company, in a flashy briefing in late January. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby stood before imagery of railcars traveling in mid-November 2022 between Russia and North Korea and predicted that Wagner would “continue to receive North Korean weapons systems.” He promised consequences, and the administration designated Wagner as a significant Transnational Criminal Organization several days later.
But the administration’s North Korea policy has been largely muted. Washington condemned North Korea’s actions and shared the information on the weapons transfers with the UN Security Council’s panel of experts. Both actions reinforced their preferred path: humiliate Kim into changing course. Unfortunately for the administration, Kim has no shame.
Kim’s political prison camps and other human rights abuses are crimes against humanity and the world has let him escape without any punishment. Kim is not going to be shamed by American officials standing behind a podium in the White House briefing room.
The administration squandered eight months since the initial briefing on Russia-North Korea cooperation by relying solely on rhetoric and shunning impactful sanctions. Of course, the administration would object to that characterization, and Sullivan tried to defend the Biden team’s policy. He explained that the administration in mid-August imposed “targeted sanctions to try to disrupt any effort to use North Korea as a conduit or as a source for weapons going to Russia.” But a closer look at those sanctions reveals the administration’s misguided approach.
According to the U.S. Treasury Department, the sanctions targeted three companies linked to a “sanctions evasion network attempting to support” North Korea-Russia arms deals. These companies were owned or controlled by Ashot Mkrtychev, a Slovakian national whom Treasury designated on March 30. Treasury explained that between the end of 2022 and early 2023 Mkrtychev worked as an intermediary between Russian and North Korean officials for the transfer of “over two dozen kinds of weapons and munitions for Russia in exchange for materials ranging from commercial aircraft, raw materials, and commodities to be sent to the DPRK.”
It is possible that Mkrtychev was an entrepreneur and found an opportunity to make a quick profit facilitating Russia-North Korea arms deals. More likely is that Putin and Kim are so dismissive of the Biden administration’s response that they decided to cut out the middleman and just work directly with each other. That could explain why Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, visited North Korea and toured a weapons expo, providing an opening for the forthcoming leader-level summit.
The administration’s sanctions misfire illuminates a larger problem: The administration has largely shunned using meaningful sanctions to counter Pyongyang’s weapons advances. Sanctions have atrophied since 2018, when former President Donald Trump pursued summit-level diplomacy with Kim. But Biden has continued this dangerous policy and has not implemented congressionally mandated sanctions that passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities.
There is a better path. Kim has four strategic priorities: nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, North Korean elites, and the military. He likely judges every action, including aid to Russia and bolstering his relationships with Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, against how they help him advance these priorities.
That provides an opportunity for the administration to impact the North Korea-Russia relationship by destroying Kim’s revenue generation. If Kim does not have the money to buy luxury goods for his elites, or build nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles for the military, he could see his grip on power slip.
The administration should begin by targeting every sanctions evader aiding North Korea wherever located, including in China and Russia. Pyongyang relies on both countries for importing materials and financing its transactions abroad, since North Korea’s financial system is largely cut off from international finance. Washington should remember that Kim is building additional nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. President Biden needs to prioritize this threat by targeting Chinese banks, companies, and individuals.
The Biden team believes it can shame North Korea into being a responsible actor. But Kim cares not about international prestige but about survival, and right now Putin and Xi are offering better terms. Biden can change that calculus by devastating Kim’s economy. And in so doing, Biden would ultimately help Ukraine’s war effort.
About the Author and His Expertise
Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow and senior director of the Nonproliferation and Biodefense Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He previously served as the National Security Council’s director for North Korea (2018-2019) and senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense (2019-2021) in the Trump administration. Follow him on X: @NatSecAnthony.