I understand that sanctions in general work in a variety of ways, such as preventing new technologies from being developed, encouraging unrest among the populace, etc.

However, it appears to me that right now North Korea is at a very advanced point in its nuclear program. It also appears to be highly motivated to develop a functional, deliverable nuclear weapon.

Taking this into consideration, and assuming that the end goal of any future sanctions is to prevent North Korea from continuing its research into nuclear weaponry, how exactly are further sanctions intended to accomplish this?

As an example, we can take the proposed oil embargo of North Korea. What is the assumed causal link between implementing such a measure and North Korea abandoning its efforts to develop a functional nuclear weapon?

  • 1
    Yes, NK posses WMD as what has Iraq did.
    – mootmoot
    Commented Sep 18, 2017 at 15:54
  • I think sanctions would not work...at least if the aim is to make people of the country angry against their government/regime....this will not work.
    – Dumbo
    Commented Sep 18, 2017 at 21:08

3 Answers 3


The point of sanctions isn't necessarily, or always, "to prevent" the things the sanctions are based on.

More often than not, they can serve at least three other purposes:

  1. They are a necessary step to show that you're trying to resolve the situation peacefully.

    This way, if a military intervention happens later, the opponents (domestic or international) of that intervention can't point fingers and say "you just wanted a war, otherwise you'd have tried sanctions first!".

  2. They are a way for a government/UN to give appearance of Doing Something

    If the thing the sanctions are addressing does happen (e.g. DPRK acquires nukes), the opponents of that outcome can't point fingers and say "you didn't do anything to try and prevent it".

    If you slap on the sanctions, you can always say "well, the war was out of the question, but we did the only / next best thing - sanctions".

  3. They serve as a precedent.

    When the NEXT country tries the same thing as DPRK, there is a precedent of sanctions, so sanctions can be applied easier (hopefully) - and hopefully, in case of another country, the sanctions would be more effective than with mostly-isolated DPRK.

  • 4
    Sources: Stratfor podcast frequently discusses sanctions in general, and especially their lack of effectiveness. Basically, everyone knows it's largely an empty gesture, but nobody is willing to say that out-loud since it's the ONLY gesture that can be made.
    – user4012
    Commented Sep 18, 2017 at 15:51
  • 1
    There is a fourth point: Preventing them from getting hold of rare materials and high tech items which they need for doing the things we disapprove of
    – RedSonja
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 8:54
  • 1
    Good point. Sanctions on South Africa (to cite an old example) were not intended to prevent apartheid, they were intended to cause enough pain to alter existing behavior. Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 15:36

Certain resources are required to make nuclear weapons.

Either uranium 235 or plutonium 239 is required.

In either case, natural isotope-abundance uranium (which has less than 1% U-235) is the starting material. So the initial step is a mining operation within northern Korea, or importation from another country.

Second, is a step of isotope enrichment, either to highly enriched U-235 or enriched enough to use in a reactor to make plutonium.

For a hydrogen bomb, in addition to the above, lithium-6 and deuterium (hydrogen-2) must also be obtained.

For the above processes, a significant amount of energy is required. Korea has no internal source of petroleum, so it is particularly dependent upon imports of fuel to operate mining equipment for example.

Without any imported petroleum, it would be much more difficult for the north to make nuclear weapons.

There can be work-around solutions such as using coal to directly or indirectly fuel the entire economy, but this would be very burdensome. Even coal requires petroleum use for mining and transport of the coal.

Overall, the capacity to make nuclear weapons, and to make war generally, would be greatly reduced with no imported petroleum.

  • 2
    Yes. The energy needed for uranium enrichment is considerable. At one point during WW2 it was said that 1/6th of all the electricity generated went to Oak Ridge link.
    – Floris
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 15:28

The expected causal link is:

  • Lack of oil makes people unhappy.
  • The Kim doesn't want people to be too unhappy, they might revolt!
  • To avoid revolt, the Kim does what the Donald wants.

However, the reasons given by @user4012 is probably just as important.

  • 1
    "casual link" lol. You stated why so many people starved during the 90's.
    – AzulShiva
    Commented Oct 6, 2018 at 18:52

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