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Why arms embargoes on countries such as North Korea fail

Dr Daniel Salisbury

Research Fellow at the Centre for Science and Security Studies (CSSS), Department of War Studies

12 November 2020

Last month North Korea held a military parade to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Despite facing a United Nations (UN) arms embargo since 2006, a range of new and modern-looking military hardware was displayed – ostensibly produced in North Korea. Hours after armoured vehicles, tanks and missiles trundled through Kim Il-Sung Square, the BBC and Scandinavian broadcasters coincidentally premiered an undercover documentary – ten years in the making – that shines light onto the shady world of North Korea’s arms trade.

“The Mole” saw a retired Danish Chef infiltrate the Korean Friendship Association and rise up the ranks. He eventually accompanies an actor playing a flamboyant fake investor to Pyongyang, who signs a $3.2 million contract to set up a secret underground North Korean arms factory on a Ugandan island. The documentary portrays the North Koreans as desperate to sell their wares, unscrupulous international businessmen and corrupt foreign government officials as willing facilitators, and these adaptable transnational networks as very difficult for governments to shut down.

North Korea has long profited from the export of arms, missiles and even nuclear technology to other states – even since the sanctions were passed by the UN Security Council. The sanctions era has whittled down the markets for North Korea’s arms, and simultaneously seen the regime in Pyongyang find increasingly elaborate means of raising hard currency.

Illicit networks – such as those showcased in “The Mole” – have allowed North Korea to get around the embargo – exporting arms and importing advanced military, dual-use and manufacturing technologies to build up indigenous production capabilities. The parade in October showcased Pyongyang’s wares for sale, but also the country’s increasingly capable defence industry benefitting from North Korea’s illicit procurement.

Neutralising arms embargoes 

North Korea is the latest in a long line of countries that have sought to find ways to respond to and – in effect – neutralise arms embargoes. The idea of enhancing security by preventing adversaries from gaining military technology is as old as antiquity. Embargoes and states simultaneously figuring out ways to circumvent these measures goes hand in hand. During the Cold War a wide range of states as diverse as China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Israel, North Korea, Rhodesia, South Africa and the Soviet Union were subject to embargoes – either by the UN or other states – and sought to find ways around these restrictions.

I recently explored Iran’s efforts to circumvent the arms embargo put in place by the United States after the 1979 revolution in an article for Intelligence and National Security. As Iran and Iraq fought a war during the 1980s that killed more than a million people, American diplomats tried to persuade international partners to join them in isolating Iran. Despite US efforts, Iran was able to supply its military machine throughout the eight-year conflict – and an office block in London, just a mile from King’s Strand Campus, was central to this story.

Iran operated a series of Military Purchasing Offices in Westminster – a legacy of British 1970s pre-revolution arms sales to the Shah. The office, opposite Westminster Abbey, was run by Iranian military officers until it was closed down by the Thatcher government in 1987.

Estimates placed the value of arms ordered by personnel in the building in the hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars. The true quantities of arms purchased through the offices – and indeed how much merchandise passed through the building itself – is unclear. However, the offices were central to Iran’s procurement operation, with the British government largely turning a blind eye, despite their stated policy of not supplying lethal equipment to Iran or Iraq.

A key part of the sanctions toolkit

Since the end of the Cold War, arms embargoes have become an even more prominent tool of statecraft. Embargoes are considered a part of the broader sanctions toolkit – encompassing economic sanctions, financial sanctions, asset freezes, travel bans and other punitive measures.

Of the 28 UN mandatory arms embargoes ever imposed, 26 were passed in 1990 or later. Arms embargoes have become a key tool used by the UN Security Council to respond to a wide range of international security challenges: conflict, human rights abuses and nuclear proliferation to name a few.

Arms embargoes have also, in some sense, become a go-to policy response for governments around the world. They represent an easy symbolic gesture in the face of instability, conflict or deteriorating diplomatic situations. De facto unilateral embargoes can be swiftly imposed by government ministers shifting export licensing practices, often to the frustration of bureaucrats and those in industry.

Given the importance placed on this policy tool, more research on arms embargoes is required. Much discussion surrounding their effectiveness has focused on the varying degrees of implementation and enforcement of these measures. The means that embargoed states have employed to get around them merit more discussion, including illicit procurement and purchasing networks, to indigenisation of advanced technologies and manufacturing capabilities. The ability of states’ procurement and export apparatus to adapt to new circumstances suggests no amount of implementation will be able to stop the determined.

I recently started a three-year Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship exploring states’ responses to arms embargoes. My research will take me to archives around the UK and across the world, culminating in the publication of a new historical work exploring how different states have responded to these measures over time. Greater understanding of these issues will help government officials better foresee the implications of their policies, including how states might respond to embargoes put in place against them, and the conditions under which arms embargoes are likely to be more or less effective.


Dr Daniel Salisbury is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Science and Security Studies (CSSS), in the Department of War Studies, King's College London.


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Daniel Salisbury

Daniel Salisbury

Visiting Research Fellow

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