№ 12, 2024. Deterring North Korea and Iran: Are Sanctions a Right Way Forward?

June 14, 2024

After the 2nd World War, the global community entered the bipolar age, with the United States and the Soviet Union contending with one another on the ideological, economic, and, most importantly, military fronts. Thus, many political science theorists began to discuss the concept of strategic deterrence between two or more nuclear-armed states. Traditionally, deterrence is perceived as the “persuasion of one’s opponent that the costs and/or risks of a given course of action outweigh its benefits”.[1] In other words, it involves the threat or use of force to uphold the status quo and alter an adversary’s conduct such that it becomes pointless for them to harm you.

Nonetheless, understanding the status quo as the relative nuclear stability, established throughout the Cold War, it is imperative to say that it has been significantly challenged in recent years. The reason is the revisionist nuclear politics of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Thus, North Korea joined the Nuclear Club after its first nuclear test conducted in 2006. Iran, on their turn, has recently resumed uranium enrichment activities and the nuclear program as it is, following the collapse in 2018 of the so-called Nuclear Deal with Iran, which was agreed upon among the Islamic Republic and five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) in 2015.

Importantly, the existence of nuclear-armed North Korea and potentially nuclear-armed Iran may be called a tremendous shift in the nuclear world order, as they questioned today’s relevance of a traditional power-backed deterrence. In other words, the global community could not prevent the nuclearization of two rogue states by enforcing and threatening them. Furthermore, it has been forced to reconsider deterrence as it is. Thus, Jeffrey W. Knopf, in his article “The Fourth Wave in Deterrence Research”, promotes the idea of a tailored deterrence, which implies incorporating into the threat or the use of force, for instance, economic suppression.[2] Significantly, this was the strategy applied towards both North Korea and Iran facing devastating multilateral and unilateral nuclear-related economic sanctions, trade embargo, assets freezing, etc. since the early 2000s.

Nonetheless, while analyzing the last two and a half decades, it becomes evident that the strategy generally failed. Thus, the self-declaration of North Korea as a nuclear-armed state in November last year, as well as incremental rumors of Iran, possessing nuclear weapons, demonstrate a high necessity to reconsider the way the global community has been approaching the two countries. In this regard, it is relevant to recall the fundamental work of Etel Solingen “The Political Economy of Nuclear Restraint”, stating that closed economies are less vulnerable to an external economic suppression and, thus, more likely to resist joining or complying with the global nonproliferation regime[3]; in fact, this is explicitly manifested by both cases discussed within this paper.

Additionally, it is also worth noting that both North Korea and Iran stand out from the West with regard to their value systems making the threat of nuclear destruction of their societies inefficient when it comes to power-backed deterrence.[4] In this regard, it is valid to assume that enforcement measures, specifically, the economic suppression is not the right way that the global community needs to follow. Instead, the revised tailored deterrence towards North Korea and Iran should be displayed in the harmony between forceful impact and diplomatic efforts. This essay is aimed at examining the global response towards nuclear developments in the DPRK and Iran, focusing on the failure of sanctions and the relative success and the necessity of diplomatic measures.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Literature Review

While analyzing the nuclearization of North Korea and the response of the global community the state faced, it is relevant to recall the debate between Victor Cha and David Kang titled “Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies”, especially the revised edition of 2018. Thus, Victor Cha represents a belligerent position to the current North Korean political establishment, whereas David Kang remains more cautious and follows the restrained views. Kang suggests that the situation is stable due to the joint conventional superiority of the US, South Korea, and Japan which makes a nuclear war highly unlikely. According to Kang, no matter how successful North Korea’s nuclear and missile enhancement has been, deterrence still works, and the status quo has been upheld.[5]

On the contrary, Victor Cha, re-emphasizing the nuclear development of North Korea from 2003 to 2018 and the respectively increasing threats from the DPRK, promotes the use of armed force against the state. Similarly, Cha’s vision of the American strategy is persistent, compared to what he suggested in 2003 – enhanced economic sanctions, stepped-up pressure, strengthened military ties with regional allies and partners, etc.[6] Interestingly enough, it is also mentioned in the book that sanctions have not led to the collapse of the regime. Instead they have led to the stabilization of the North Korean economy.[7]

Conversely, many scholars and political science theorists highlight the inefficiency of sanctions. First and foremost, it is relevant to recall Eric Brewer, who concludes that sanctions work when economic hardships push the citizens to pressure their state leaders to change.[8] In fact, the North Korean political structure intrinsically lacks the democratic mechanism for the aforementioned to happen. In this respect, Andrei Lankov notes that North Korea has successfully resisted political and economic changes even under longstanding economic sanctions.[9] In essence, from that point of view, economic sanctions have not forced the DPRK to denuclearization; instead, reinforced the state. In other words, the North Korean political establishments managed to unite the citizens under the anti-external pressure movement.

Summing everything up, there are three major positions towards the North Korean nuclear issue: (1) those who intend to maintain the current state of affairs; (2) those who wish to enhance the pressure towards North Korea by strengthening enforcement measures, including also economic sanctions; and (3) those who note the counterproductive nature of sanctions and the necessity to reconsider the contemporary policies. Remarkably, with hindsight, the first two views seem to be overly simplistic as they diminish the prospects of any resolution.

North Korean Nuclear Program and the Failure of Sanctions: What’s next?

In 1985, North Korea joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but still decided not to conclude safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to avoid granting full access to its nuclear facilities. Subsequently, in 1994, to prevent the further nuclearization of the state, the United States and North Korea signed an agreement – the Agreed Framework – that fell apart later in 2003. The collapse of the only then-existing negotiation platform was followed by economic sanctions imposed by the United States towards North Korea and the withdrawal of the latter from the NPT.[10]

To stabilize the ongoing crisis, the representatives of the United States, Russia, China, North and South Korea, and Japan conducted the Six-Party Talks. Negotiations started in 2003 and stopped in 2008, with a total of six rounds held. The main goal of the talks was to reach an agreement on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. However, the destructive nature of the negotiations between the US and North Korea, more specifically, the extreme belligerence of the former and increasing economic suppression towards the latter has led to North Korea’s withdrawal from this format and the escalation of the situation around the North Korean nuclear program.[11]

In 2006, the DPRK officially conducted the first nuclear test. Overall, the country conducted six nuclear tests: in October 2006, May 2009, February 2013, January and September 2016, and July and September 2017. In response, the United Nations Security Council adopted nine resolutions with coercive measures against the DPRK: 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), 2094 (2013), 2270 (2016), 2321 (2016), 2371 (2017), 2375 (2017), 2379 (2017). All of the resolutions include the imposition of economic sanctions, an arms embargo, a travel ban and other measures. Among the strictest restrictions are the oil embargo and the economic blockade imposed on the DPRK.[12]

Thus, within the period between 2003 and 2017, the global community observed the devastating action-reaction model, with hostile actions being responded by enmity. Every time North Korea faced multilateral or unilateral economic sanctions it behaved aggressively and vice versa, which has led to no prospects for any resolution. However, many politicians are still insisting on putting a higher economic pressure on North Korea as the only way to resolve the crisis. Joshua Stanton, who helped draft the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement and Policy Enforcement Act in 2016, said, “If there is any chance of denuclearizing North Korea, it is to put so much pressure on Kim Jong Un that he or the generals around him decide that denuclearization is their only alternative to the collapse of the state”.[13]

Nevertheless, the question arises of whether the economic sanctions have led to the outcomes of deterring North Korea or they have failed. Indeed, in November 2022, the North Korean political establishments passed the law that officially declares North Korea as a nuclear-armed state and emphasizes the likelihood of the usage of nuclear weapons in case of an existential threat to the state.[14] Respectively, this highlights that the enforcement measures applied either multilaterally or unilaterally to deter the DPRK have collapsed to do so. In this regard, James Person says that sanctions alone will not be enough to push the DPRK to freeze nuclear-related activities. Instead, the global community and, most notably, the United States should aspire to negotiate with North Korea.[15]

Summarizing everything stated above, the only effective solution to the issue at hand is a holistic reconsideration of the politics that the global community has been using in the last three decades. Nowadays, the economic sanctions applied are no longer facilitating the resolution process but, instead, strengthening the position of the current North Korean political leadership and providing an excuse to enhance their nuclear capabilities. Thus, there is an acute need for a comprehensive dialogue among the states involved into the crisis rather than the consistently increasing enmity.

The Islamic Republic of Iran

Literature Review

Much like the North Korean issue, with regard to the Iranian nuclear developments, it is relevant to apply classical studies on sanctions, their effects, and efficiency. Thus, it is worth recalling the J. Galtung’s article, titled “On the Effects of International Economic Sanctions: With Examples from the Case of Rhodesia” of 1967, stating that economic sanctions open up the possibilities for reinforcing the state inside against the external pressure.[16]

In fact, the Islamic Republic of Iran first faced severe economic sanctions imposed by the United States back in 1979 in response to the Iranians holding hostage American diplomats in Tehran. It is remarkable that the economic pressure from the US at that time led to the downgrading of the Iranian GDP per capita by 50%. Conversely, in the light of the recent US sanctions following the collapse of the Nuclear Deal with the Islamic Republic, the respective rates were five times less in 2020, according to the World Bank.[17] In this regard, it is salient to re-emphasize the pertinence of Solingen’s economic model of motivation of a state to become nuclear. Indeed, Iran became a closed economy, following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which throughout the decades made the country self-reliant and self-sufficient to resist the external economic suppression.

Furthermore, as Iran is one of the major oil-exporting countries, some scholars also examine the economic relations of the state with the world as well as the potential shifts due to the sanctions imposed. In this respect, Joseph Pelzman underscores that even though the US-led sanctions re-imposed in 2018 undermined the Iranian economy, it has also enhanced the economic relations of Iran with Russia, China, India, and others, leading to the gradual recovery.[18] Therefore, in the media space, as much as over the North Korean issue, there are enduring debates about the effect of economic sanctions on Iran and whether they will lead to the prevention of the nuclearization of the state. Some declare that both multilateral and unilateral economic sanctions are destroying Iran as a state, eroding the political and socio-economic situation in the state. However, having proven more resilient and diversified than predicted, the Iran’s economy grew 3.3% in 2020, and 4.7% in 2021, according to the World Bank.[19]

Iranian Nuclear Program and the Failure of Sanctions: What’s next?

Since the early 2000s, the global community has been paying attention to the Iranian nuclear program, accusing the Islamic Republic of building up its nuclear potential. In 2003, the IAEA launched an investigation to verify undeclared nuclear activities carried out by Iran. Three years later, the UN Security Council assumed responsibility for the Iranian nuclear program, adopting the resolution 1696 (2006). In this resolution, the Security Council called on Iran to suspend uranium enrichment activities and verify compliance with the requirements of the IAEA Board of Governors. The resolution did not contain any coercive measures, but it laid the foundation for subsequent actions taken within the framework of the Security Council mandate.

Since Iran did not comply with the prescribed requirements, the Security Council subsequently adopted the resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008), 1835 (2008), and 1929 (2010). The primary purpose of the documents was to prevent uranium enrichment activities carried out by Iran until it was completely suspended. The resolutions included the imposition of economic sanctions, arms embargo, a travel ban on senior officials, and freezing their bank assets.[20]

Remarkably, the economic sanctions imposed at that time on Iran by the United Nations, the US, and the European Union have not prevented the nuclearization of the state; instead, the situation remained highly unstable with the Islamic Republic, aspiring to further elaborate on their nuclear capabilities. Generally, the storyline repeated the action-reaction model discussed above with the reference to the DPRK. However, unlike North Korea Iran experienced an easing of enforcement measures after the adoption and further endorsement by the UN Security Council of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Essentially, the JCPOA included the measures directed for the denuclearization of the Islamic Republic in exchange for sanctions relief and economic assistance.[21] Importantly, Iran had met all of the JCPOA’s requirements. Once the IAEA verified this, all economic sanctions on Iran were lifted, which resulted in temporary regional tranquility.  Nonetheless, in 2018, when the then-US President Donald Trump announced the US withdrawal from the agreement, all the diplomatic efforts to resolve the matter were abandoned. It ultimately led to the Iranian nuclear program being resumed, and general inability to discourage the Islamic Republic from enhancing its nuclear capacities.

On July 1st, 2019, Iran announced the violation of restrictions imposed on low-enriched uranium reserves. Consequently, Iran increased uranium enrichment beyond the agreed level of 3.67%. On November 4th, 2019, Iran doubled the number of the advanced centrifuges it operates. Today, four years after the US withdrawal from the Nuclear Deal, Iranian officials declare the Republic’s readiness to enrich uranium up to 60% in case the US does not take action to limit the sanctions imposed earlier.

In summary, it is reasonable to say that the global approach toward the Iranian nuclear issue has failed. Similarly to the North Korean case, economic sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic have not led to the denuclearization. On the contrary, they (1), from a long-term perspective, forced the Iranian economy to adapt to external pressure, and (2), from a short-term perspective, broke down the only then-existing negotiation platform as the JCPOA. It is worth noting that today Iran’s economy is on the rise despite the increasing economic suppression from the global community and the US in particular. Additionally, the recently occurred incremental rumors over Iran already having nuclear weapons highlight an urgent need to reconsider the existing policies towards a diplomatic approach, which has proven the only way to stability.


In conclusion, it is significant to point out that the emergence of two nuclear-armed (potentially nuclear-armed for the Islamic Republic) rogue states has shifted the global nuclear order. Both states have questioned the relevance of traditional power-backed deterrence and eventually have forced the reconsideration of the deterrence as it is. The analysis above has shown that economic sanctions have failed in both cases, leading only to the escalation of the issue and strengthening a respective position of North Korea and Iran locally, regionally, and globally.

Conversely, in both cases, there were prospects for a resolution once negotiations started. In this regard, it is worth recalling the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that resulted in three-year stability concerning the Iranian nuclear program. As for North Korea, even though the process was like a seesaw, the Six-Party Talks succeeded as well. So, for instance, during the fifth round, North Korea consented to close its nuclear facilities in exchange for fuel assistance and moves toward the stabilization of relations with the United States and Japan. Essentially, although the diplomatic attempts towards Iran and North Korea differ, there is a crucial similarity – they were undermined and destroyed due to the reversion of enmity in talks and enforcement in actions. It justifies the indispensable role of diplomacy and calls for a newly-established concept of tailored deterrence, which should display the great powers’ strategies that imply, apart from enforcement measures, diplomatic means in order to successfully deter a rogue state.

[1] A. George, R. Smoke, Deterrence in American Foreign Policy: Theory and Practice // Columbia University Press. 1974. p. 11.

[2] Jeffrey W. Knopf, The Fourth Wave in Deterrence Research // Contemporary Security Policy, Vol. 31, No. 1. 2010. p. 9.

[3] E. Solingen, The Political Economy of Nuclear Restraint // International Security, Vol. 19, No. 2. 1994. p. 141-142.

[4] Colin S. Gray, The Reformation of Deterrence: Moving On // Comparative Strategy, Vol. 22, No. 5. 2003. p. 450.

[5] David C. Kang, Victor D. Cha, Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies // Columbia University Press. 2018. p. 197.

[6] Ibid., p. 205.

[7] Ibid., p. 191-193.

[8] E. Brewer, Can the U.S. Reinstate Maximum Pressure on North Korea? // Foreign Affairs, December 2018. URL: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/north-korea/2018-12-04/can-us-reinstate-maximum-pressure-north-korea.

[9] A. Lankov, Staying Alive: Why North Korea Will Not Change // Foreign affairs, Vol. 87, No. 2. 2008. p. 15.

[10] The U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework at a Glance // Arms Control Association. URL:  https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/agreedframework.

[11] J. Bajoria, B. Xu, The Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s Nuclear Program // Council on Foreign Relations. URL: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/six-party-talks-north-koreas-nuclear-program.

[12] UN Security Council Resolutions on North Korea // Arms Control Association. URL: https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/UN-Security-Council-Resolutions-on-North-Korea.

[13] C. Lee, Experts: Sanctions Relief Will Not Make North Korea Denuclearize // VOA News, February 2020. URL: https://www.voanews.com/a/east-asia-pacific_experts-sanctions-relief-will-not-make-north-korea-denuclearize/6183850.html.

[14] Y. Seo, L. Register, H. Chen, North Korea Declares Itself a Nuclear Weapons State, in Irreversible Move// CNN News, September 2022. URL: https://edition.cnn.com/2022/09/09/asia/north-korea-kim-nuclear-weapons-state-law-intl-hnk/index.html.

[15] J. Person, Going Beyond Sanctions to Denuclearize North Korea // Wilson Center, October 2016.

[16] J. Galtung, On the Effects of International Economic Sanctions, With Examples from the Case of Rhodesia // World Politics, Vol. 19, No. 3. 1967. p. 395.

[17] J. Northam, Why Iran’s Economy Has Not Collapsed Amid U.S. Sanctions And Maximum Pressure // NPR News, January 2020. URL: https://www.npr.org/2020/01/16/796781021/why-irans-economy-has-not-collapsed-amid-u-s-sanctions-and-maximum-pressure.

[18] J. Pelzman, The Economic Effects of the Re-Imposed United States Sanctions on Iran and Its Spillover on MENA, the PRC, Russia and Turkey // Global Economy Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1. 2020. p. 23.

[19] GDP growth (annual %) – Iran, Islamic Rep. // The World Bank Data.

[20] UN Security Council Resolutions on Iran // Arms Control Association. URL: https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Security-Council-Resolutions-on-Iran.

[21] A. Tabatabai, Negotiating the Iran talks in Tehran: the Iranian drivers that shaped the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action // The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 24, No. 3. 2017. p. 229.

Key words: International Security; Iran; North Korea


F4/SOR – 24/06/14