In July 2013, U.S. law-enforcement was tipped off about a North Korean vessel that was making its first visit to the Americas in four years. Authorities were told the Chong Chon Gang, which was supposed to be carrying sugar from Cuba to North Korea, was hiding drugs or weapons in its cargo. U.S. officials informed their Panamanian counterparts, who intercepted the vessel, finally managing to seize it after a five-day standoff with the ship’s crew. What they found inside became the stuff of punch lines: Cold War-era military equipment on its way to be repaired in North Korea.
Three years later, after more stringent international sanctions, another North Korean vessel, the Jie Shun, was intercepted, this time by Egypt. The vessel’s cargo included 30,000 PG-7 rocket-propelled grenades and other military equipment. The ship’s stated cargo: iron ore. The UN described the haul as the “largest seizure of ammunition in the history of sanctions” against North Korea. Who the weapons were intended for is still not publicly known.
But what the affairs with the Chong Chon Gang and the Jie Shun illustrate is the lengths to which North Korea, one of the most heavily sanctioned nations on Earth, will go to earn the foreign exchange needed to finance its illicit missile and nuclear programs. Therein lies the fundamental flaw within nearly every Western-led attempt to pressure North Korea, including the latest measures approved unanimously by the UN Security Council last Saturday: How do you stop a country determined to find ways to evade sanctions against it?