On 14 December 2023, the House of Lords will debate the following motion:

Lord Swire (Conservative) to move that this House takes note of the current threat posed by North Korea.

1. North Korea’s security posture and weapons development programmes

1.1 North Korea’s growing capabilities

North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, or DPRK) is one of the most militarised countries in the world.[1] The US Defence Intelligence Agency notes that North Korea’s ‘military first’ philosophy—also known as Songun—established the military as the most important institution in North Korean society and “a means to solve social, economic, and political problems”.[2] The aggressive military posture embodied by that philosophy and the advances made by North Korea in nuclear weapons and missile capabilities in recent years under the regime of President Kim Jong-un have arguably propelled it from a regional threat to peace and stability to an international one.[3]

The North Korean military has tested six nuclear devices: in 2006, 2009, 2013, twice in 2016, and in 2017.[4] Since the Six-Party nuclear talks (among China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States) broke down in 2009, North Korea has restarted its nuclear facilities that produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.[5] The US Defence Intelligence Agency has also reported that North Korea has successfully developed a nuclear warhead that is ‘miniaturised’ or sufficiently small enough to be mounted on long-range ballistic missiles.[6]

North Korea has continued to test missiles of various ranges and capabilities. Analysts report that these tests appear to have advanced the reliability and precision of the DPRK’s missile forces, and improved North Korea’s ability to defeat regional missile defence systems.[7] In 2022, North Korea tested intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) for the first time since 2017. ICBMs are able to strike targets over significant distances, raising fears that North Korea is now able to target previously unreachable areas such as the US homeland. In 2023, these ICBM tests have continued, most recently in July, alongside a record number of other missile tests, including what North Korea called a simulated tactical nuclear attack on the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) in August.[8] North Korea has also unveiled a submarine reportedly capable of launching nuclear weapons.[9] In addition, there are fears that North Korea is developing its chemical weapons capabilities.[10]

The BBC has produced an infographic on the range and types of missiles North Korea possesses, as republished below:

Graphic showing range and types of North Korean missiles
BBC News, ‘North Korea: What missiles does it have?’, 5 September 2023

North Korea has also notably developed its cyber warfare capabilities. The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s 2023 annual threat assessment states that “North Korea’s cyber program poses a sophisticated and agile espionage, cybercrime, and attack threat [and] continues to adapt to global trends in cybercrime by conducting cryptocurrency heists […]”.[11] Similarly, a joint advisory issued by the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and the ROK’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) said that cyberattacks from North Korean state-linked groups were growing in sophistication and volume, and that they have observed hackers leveraging previously unknown vulnerabilities and exploits in third-party software in their supply chains in order to gain access to an organisation’s systems.[12]

1.2 Recent diplomatic efforts and the US-led deterrence strategy

The United States has been a major actor in the attempts to curb North Korean military aggression. Along with its international allies, it has pursued a strategy of deterrence aimed at curtailing North Korean advances in weapons capabilities and persuading it to give up its nuclear ambitions, principally through bilateral and multilateral sanctions as explored below, combined with diplomatic efforts. This deterrence doctrine was reaffirmed by the US and the Republic of Korea as part of the Washington Declaration in April 2023.[13]

However, since negotiations between the US and North Korea on the latter’s nuclear weapons programme broke down in 2019, North Korea has ignored or resisted attempts by the United States and the Republic of Korea to resume dialogue. In 2022, President Kim Jong-un declared that North Korea would never denuclearise.[14] In November 2023, following the launch of a spy satellite by North Korea, the ROK suspended its involvement in the Comprehensive Military Agreement signed in 2018 with the North, which had been aimed at lowering military tensions.[15] North Korea has now vowed to fully suspend the pact and send stronger forces and equipment to the border.[16]

Writing for the RAND corporation, Professor Bruce Bennett states that North Korea remains an “existential threat” to the ROK.[17] However, he highlights a national intelligence estimate (NIE) extract released in June 2023 from the United States intelligence community,[18] which suggested that a nuclear attack and invasion from North Korea to the south was unlikely. Instead, the NIE said that North Korea has a high likelihood of using its nuclear weapons for “coercive purposes”. Professor Bennett contends that this suggests the ROK and United States face deterrence and assurance challenges associated with low-end North Korean nuclear weapon use, such as provocative or damaging tests off the coast or “targeted attacks the North thinks it can get away with because of its ‘nuclear shadow’”.

This is similar to analysis advanced by Markus Garlauskas and Lauren Gilbert at the Atlantic Council, who state that a cycle of “coercive escalation” could present the greatest threat to the existing strategy of deterrence employed by the US and its allies.[19] They argue:

Of all the potential scenarios for strategic deterrence failure in the next decade, Pyongyang seizing an opportunity to launch a full-scale attack to reunify the Korean Peninsula is one of the least plausible. The path toward strategic deterrence failure is far more likely to begin with limited North Korean coercive escalation. Such coercion could lead to an escalation cycle fuelled by limited South Korean or US responses that lead Pyongyang to escalate further to retake the initiative, which would then drive escalation dynamics that trigger North Korea to launch a pre-emptive or preventive attack and motivate Beijing to intervene.[20]

North Korea’s key relationship with China is explored in section 4 of this briefing.

2. International sanctions regime against North Korea and impact on North Korean economy

2.1 Current sanctions regime

Since 2006, the UN Security Council has passed several resolutions sanctioning North Korea for developing nuclear weapons and related activities, delivering what has been described as one of the most extensive multilateral sanctions regimes in history.[21] The United States and other countries and international bodies, including the European Union and the UK, have also imposed separate sanctions.

Under the terms of the UN sanctions regime, the following prohibitions and restrictions have been imposed on North Korea:[22]

  • bans on the trade of arms and military equipment, dual-use technologies, vehicles, industrial machinery, and metals
  • asset freezing of individuals involved in the country’s nuclear programme
  • a ban on the import of certain luxury goods
  • bans on the export of electrical equipment, coal, minerals, seafood and other food and agricultural products, wood, textiles, and stones
  • a cap on North Korean labour exports
  • caps on the importation of oil and refined petroleum products
  • a ban on natural gas imports
  • restrictions on fishing rights
  • restrictions on scientific and technical cooperation with North Korea
  • prohibitions on UN members from opening North Korean bank accounts and banking offices

As noted by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), unilateral sanctions imposed by the US restrict more economic activities and target a larger list of individuals and businesses than the UN sanctions.[23] It notes that US sanctions are primarily designed to impede Pyongyang’s development of missile and nuclear technology, but some have come in response to North Korean cyberattacks, such as its 2014 breach of Sony’s computer systems and 2017 WannaCry ransomware attack; human rights violations; censorship; and money laundering, among other activities. Additionally, the US has sanctioned banks, companies, and individuals outside North Korea—particularly in China and Russia—for supporting its weapons programme. It has also fined companies for violating US export controls. These sanctions were recently expanded further, in coordination with Japan, Australia and the Republic of Korea, after the launch of the North Korean satellite in November 2023.[24]

The European Union has also imposed bilateral sanctions on North Korea.[25] The UK was previously a party to this sanctions regime, and has passed delegated legislation to ensure certain sanctions measures relating to North Korea continue to operate following its exit from the EU.[26] The UK’s Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation in the Treasury currently lists sanctions against 137 individuals, 84 entities and 15 ships.[27]

2.2 Impact of the sanctions

Whilst obtaining robust data is a challenge due to North Korea’s insular stance, the sanctions appear to have had a significant impact on the North Korean economy. In research published in November 2023, academics Jihee Kim et al estimate that sanctions reduced the country’s manufacturing output by 12.9% and real income by 15.3%.[28] Similarly, Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein at the Swedish Institute for Foreign Affairs notes that the country’s current exports are estimated to be worth “only a few hundred million dollars per year—much smaller than its trade losses [which it has incurred as a result of the sanctions]”.[29] He notes, for example, that the UN Panel of Experts estimated that North Korea earned around $370mn from sanctions-violating coal exports in 2019, which is “only a fraction” of the $1.19bn it earned from such exports in 2016, before harsher sanctions were imposed.

The CFR notes that sanctions are often “felt most by ordinary families, not the elites who are their intended targets”.[30] It observes that export restrictions on the textile, fishing, and coal industries and bans on working abroad “disproportionately affect North Koreans who depend on these economies”. Similarly, it notes that sanctions also frequently delay and suspend the delivery of international humanitarian aid by complicating customs and other bureaucratic operations, crucial in a country “where half of the population is malnourished and one in every five children’s growth is stunted”.

Mr Silberstein contends that the civilian impact of sanctions remains unclear. He agrees that sanctions have disproportionally impacted certain sectors. However, he contends that they have not driven up food prices, for example:

On one hand, sanctions have likely dealt a harsh blow to labour-intensive industries like textiles, where a high proportion of workers are women, resulting in increased unemployment and lower wages. The falling incomes of North Koreans working in sanctioned industries substantially dampen the wider economy. On the other hand, there is no evidence that sanctions have driven up the price of food or other essential goods.[31]

At the same time, Mr Silberstein notes that sanctions have “undoubtedly worsened” North Korea’s food shortage by hindering imports of fertiliser and spare parts for agricultural equipment. However, he maintains that these impacts are “minimal” compared with the regime’s refusal to undertake basic reforms in agriculture, including dismantling collective farms or letting farmers sell their products on open markets.

The conditions faced by the civilian population in North Korea and reports of human rights abuses are further explored in section 3 of this briefing.

2.3 Sanctions evasion

North Korea continues to operate a widespread system of sanctions evasion. The RAND Corporation reports that this centres around four main activities: activities that generate hard-currency income; activities using the hard currency acquired to buy essential raw materials and dual-use and restricted technologies; covert transportation of goods that obfuscates North Korean involvement; and movements of hard currency, precious metals, and jewels internationally without North Korea’s beneficial ownership of those funds becoming known.[32]

Traditionally, these activities have reportedly been focused around North Korea’s diplomatic networks—the embassies, consulates, trade representative offices and missions to international organisations, as well as the diplomats themselves and their respective networks. According to RUSI associate fellow Daniel Salisbury, these form “key nodes” in the country’s sanctions-busting efforts.[33]

According to investigations by organisations such as the Financial Times and RUSI, this approach has evolved as North Korea has increasingly turned to further illicit means of obtaining the goods it needs—particularly oil and other key resources—including working with a complex network of organised crime groups.[34] Dr Salisbury contends that the evolving nature of North Korea’s sanctions evasion tactics may be at least part of the motivation behind recent announcements on the closure of embassies in some countries and territories, as well as economic concerns on the cost of running those offices.[35]

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein also highlights the economic cost of sanctions evasion and smuggling itself, which he states are “very expensive activities”. Mr Silberstein notes that Pyongyang must pay a “massive risk premium” on its purchases of oil smuggled into the country as well as well above-market prices to give sellers a reason to take the risk of arrest and prosecution for sanctions violations. He reasons that the same is true for illicit North Korean exports, arguing that sanctions do not stop coal exports entirely, but “slash the prices that North Korea can charge”.[36]

Despite the cost of these activities, however, the most recent UN Panel of Experts report from September 2023 makes clear that North Korea continues to use a “rich variety” of sanctions evasion measures, including increasing use of new methods such as cybercrime:

In the present report, the panel describes a rich variety of sanctions evasion measures deployed by vessels delivering refined petroleum products to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. These included more sophisticated means to avoid detection, changing trading locations in affected waters, and additional ships involved in multi-stage trans-shipments. The panel received information that the country continues to import refined petroleum products in violation of Security Council resolutions. Vessel acquisition in violation of Security Council sanctions continued: the country acquired 14 new vessels in the period under review. Prohibited ship-to-ship exports of coal from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea continued.

Although the country’s borders remained largely closed, trade volumes increased mainly because of the resumption of rail traffic. A large variety of foreign goods has quickly reappeared. The panel continued to investigate reports of imports of luxury goods.

After a record-breaking level of cyberthefts in 2022, estimated at $1.7bn, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea hackers reportedly continued to successfully target cryptocurrency and other financial exchanges globally. Actors working for the Reconnaissance General Bureau continued to use increasingly sophisticated cybertechniques to steal funds and information. Companies in the cryptocurrency, defence, energy and health sectors were targeted in particular.[37]

2.4 Will sanctions deter North Korean aggression?

Despite the economic impact of the sanctions, North Korea’s drive towards advanced weapons technology has continued. This has led some analysts to question whether sanctions will ever provide an effective deterrent to North Korea’s aggressive military posture or the development of advanced weapons technologies.[38]

However, the CFR argues that many believe there are only ‘poor options’ available:

Many policy analysts see only a variety of poor options; none guarantee the denuclearisation of North Korea, and some, if unsuccessful, could make matters worse. Many experts say that before new sanctions are considered, the existing ones should be better enforced, including by improving training for authorities inspecting ships in international ports.


Disagreements remain over how to move forward. Some argue that there is room for far tougher sanctions against North Korea and those who profit from transacting with it. Others fear that expanding sanctions against Chinese entities could jeopardize the US-China relationship and undermine bilateral cooperation on issues such as terrorism and climate change.

Still others argue that sanctions will take years to have a meaningful impact, and that any approach to North Korea will require incremental increases in pressure. Experts including CFR’s Scott A Snyder say that sanctions must be implemented in conjunction with other measures, such as diplomacy with Pyongyang and assurances by Washington to its allies in the region.[39]

Similarly, Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein contends:

None of [the evaluation of the impact of the sanctions] is to say that the current thinking on North Korea sanctions is without serious flaws. The demand that denuclearisation should come before any relief on sanctions, for example, is unrealistic. But many also exaggerate the possible gains of abolishing sanctions. A common misperception is that, were sanctions to be lifted, North Korea would open its doors to foreign investors who would flock to the country for its strategic geographic location and cheap labour.

Removing sanctions would not change the basics of North Korea’s economic system. Despite a permissive attitude towards markets during former supreme leader Kim Jong-il’s reign and the first few years of Kim Jong-un’s, harsh state control over the economy best serves the regime’s political and social goals by allowing it to control the distribution of resources. Sanctions hurt, but removing them is no silver bullet for political or economic progress.[40]

Others such as Tom Keatinge and Aaron Arnold at RUSI note what they call “the lack of sanctions harmonisation” between the US, UK and EU, which they contend is leading to “a fractious regime, which can complicate implementation efforts and overall efficacy”.[41] They argue that if the international community is to have “any realistic hope of blunting Pyongyang’s continued nuclear ambitions”, a coordinated and consistent focus must be applied to restricting North Korea’s access to financial resources.

3. Conditions for civilians in North Korea and human rights abuses

Concern at the conditions being endured by the civilian population and the scale of human rights abuses in the country has continued to grow. Speaking at the first open meeting of the UN Security Council since 2017 on North Korean human rights, High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said that in the past its people have endured periods of severe economic difficulty and repression, but “currently they appear to be suffering both”.[42] He added:

According to our information, people are becoming increasingly desperate as informal markets and other coping mechanisms are dismantled, while their fear of state surveillance, arrest, interrogation and detention has increased.[43]

Mr Türk added that the North Korean government had shut down markets and other private means of generating income and increasingly criminalised such activity, stating that:

This sharply constrains people’s ability to provide for themselves and their families. Given the limits of state-run economic institutions, many people appear to be facing extreme hunger as well as acute shortages of medication.[44]

He also contended that many human rights violations stem directly from, or support, the ongoing militarisation of the country:

For example, the widespread use of forced labour—including labour in political prison camps, forced use of schoolchildren to collect harvests, the requirement for families to undertake labour and provide a quota of goods to the government, and confiscation of wages from overseas workers—all support the military apparatus of the state and its ability to build weapons.[45]

This was akin to the assessment made by the UK government’s latest human rights and democracy report, published in July 2023, which agreed that conditions in the country remained dire for many:

There were no signs of any improvement in the dire human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 2022. The country’s borders remained closed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the DPRK authorities continued to refuse to co-operate with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) or with the newly appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, Elizabeth Salmón.

The DPRK was listed in last place out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index and top of Open Doors’ annual ranking of the 50 countries in which Christians experience extreme persecution. In principle, freedoms of speech, religion or belief, the press, association, and peaceful assembly were guaranteed by the DPRK’s constitution, but in reality, it was almost impossible for believers to gather or meet to worship, with the DPRK’s “anti-reactionary thought” law bringing enormous personal risk to those who did dare to do so.[46]

Similar points were made by the UK’s ambassador, James Kariuki, at the UN Security Council meeting on North Korea in August 2023, who said:

[T]he United Kingdom remains deeply concerned by the appalling human rights situation in the DPRK. It is clear that human rights violations remain widespread, systematic and completely lacking in accountability.[47]

4. Relations between North Korea and China

China remains North Korea’s most important international partner. The Financial Times notes that 90% of North Korea’s foreign trade is with China.[48] China is also the only country with which North Korea has a mutual defence treaty.[49]

Relations between the two countries remain complex, however. For example, Professor Bruce Bennett argues that relations between the two may not be as close as it might appear, not least because they are in pursuit of different goals.[50] Professor Bennett contends that China’s key objective in Northeast Asia is stability (notably, for example, China is also South Korea’s largest trading partner[51]), whilst North Korea’s is disruption, hoping to “gain leverage and ultimately dominance over South Korea”. For Professor Bennett, North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons, and especially its development of ICBMs, is key to that strategy.

Whilst China has counselled restraint “on all sides” in response to previous North Korean missile tests and its chief nuclear envoy has engaged in talks with South Korean and US counterparts, it has also exercised its veto power at the UN Security Council in the past to prevent additional sanctions being placed on North Korea.[52] The US has also expressed concerns that China is actively helping North Korea expand its military capabilities by enabling Pyongyang to evade UN sanctions.[53] This is backed up by a number of analysts who point out that, whilst Beijing maintains it is committed to enforcing the sanctions, senior Chinese officials have attended parades of weaponry in Pyongyang, for example, that North Korea is not supposed to possess.[54] The Independent documents further evidence of apparent sanctions evasion involving Chinese goods or vessels:

North Korea imported more than $250,000 worth of aluminium oxide, which can be used in processing nuclear weapons fuel, from a Chinese company in 2015, according to customs records cited in a think tank report. US prosecutors have alleged the same company accounted for a significant share of overall trade between North Korea and China; its customers included the Chinese government’s Ministry of Commerce, which was bidding on North Korean projects.

Images from North Korean military parades have shown the regime’s nuclear missiles being transported on launchers made with Chinese heavy-duty truck chassis. China told the UN panel of experts that North Korea had promised it would use the trucks to move timber.

China [also] regularly ignores reams of satellite photos and vessel tracking data compiled by a UN panel of experts showing Chinese-flagged vessels docking with North Korean ships and transferring goods. North Korean ships are banned by UN sanctions from participating in ship-to-ship transfers, which are often done to obscure the flow of sanctioned goods like coal exports and oil imports.[55]

The article also notes that the US was among the signatories to a letter sent to China in summer 2023 saying they were “disappointed” that satellite photos continue to show cargo ships that have allegedly been documented breaking sanctions operating in Chinese ports and territorial waters. The letter said that the international community was “closely watching China’s commitment to upholding its UN obligations”. However, as the Independent notes, China continues to dismiss such findings, contending that its own investigations have uncovered no evidence of wrongdoing, without providing any alternative information or explanation.

There have also been concerns over the recent forced return of North Korean refugees by China to North Korea. The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on North Korea was among those who drew attention to the issue, writing to the then foreign secretary James Cleverly to outline its “deep concern” on the issue and the “severe risks of imprisonment, torture, detention in prison camps, and even execution” it argued these people now faced.[56] The APPG called upon the UK to prevail upon the Chinese authorities to facilitate safe passage for refugees to transit through third countries and reach South Korea.

5. Illicit supply of North Korean weapons to Russia

There has been a notable deepening of ties between North Korea and Russia in 2023. Alongside high-profile visits—including North Korean President Kim Jong-Un travelling to Russia by secure train to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in September 2023[57]—intelligence sources suggest that North Korea is now supplying Russia with weapons and ammunition in direct contravention of international sanctions.[58] These include UN sanctions on the sale of North Korean weaponry which Russia itself had previously supported.[59]

Indeed, analysts at RUSI report that, according to high-resolution satellite images taken in recent months, Russia has likely begun shipping North Korean munitions “at scale”, opening a new supply route “that could have profound consequences for the war in Ukraine and international security dynamics in East Asia”.[60] Such weaponry is particularly helpful according to some experts because of its compatibility with Russian weapon systems.[61]

The RUSI report outlines the potential consequences for the Ukrainian war:

Having prepared for a massive conventional war with South Korea for decades, North Korea’s supplying of significant quantities of munitions to Moscow will have profound consequences for the war in Ukraine. For the Russians, a major North Korean supply line will alleviate shortages of munitions for what has proven to be an ordinance-hungry conflict and enable the Russian armed forces to feed their frontline troops as they try to repel a Ukrainian counteroffensive. Ukraine and its supporters will also have to contend with this new reality, potentially escalating their support by providing additional quantities of weapons and munitions to Ukraine’s defenders. [62]

However, the report also argues that the consequences will be felt much further afield, presenting a potential threat to global security:

But the impact will be felt much further than the battlefield in Ukraine. The sale of such quantities of munitions will fill the coffers of the cash-strapped regime in Pyongyang, which has traditionally used the proceeds of arms deliveries to develop its own nuclear and ballistic missile programme in violation of UN sanctions. Moreover, in addition to the pecuniary benefits, North Korea may seek other assistance from Russia in return for its support, including the provision of missile and other advanced military technologies.

As a result, North Korea’s agreements with Moscow will also cause significant alarm in Japan and South Korea, countries already on the sharp end of Pyongyang’s ongoing provocations. Confronted with a strengthening alliance between North Korea and Russia, Tokyo and Seoul might explore additional avenues to offset the North Korean threat while extending further support to Ukraine’s efforts to oust Russian forces from its territory.

However, Pyongyang’s decision to deliver munitions at scale once again underscores the grave threat that North Korea poses to international security, this time feeding a conflagration on European soil that has already cost the lives of tens of thousands of Ukrainians and consumed tens of billions of dollars in Western military support.[63]

There has also been speculation that North Korea may have asked for humanitarian aid in return for military assistance.[64]

Some analysts have observed that such cooperation is unlikely to be occurring without Chinese knowledge and perhaps consent, given Beijing’s close ties with the other two countries.[65] Indeed, some have characterised it as a trilateral partnership to counter the influence of the US in particular.[66]

Alexander Korolev, an expert on China-Russia relations with the University of New South Wales in Australia, contends that “whatever’s happening with Russia and North Korea cannot be happening without China knowing about it […] I don’t think they would cooperate militarily without Beijing’s approval”. [67] He added that China could see North Korea as a useful proxy to help Russia in the Ukraine war at low reputational cost:

Simply by greenlighting North Korea to have military cooperation with Russia is a way to help Russia with very low reputational costs. It could blame North Korea’s rogue regime [whose actions have] nothing to do with them. It would be a smart move, if this is the case.[68]

However, others contend that, much in keeping with Chinese-North Korean bilateral relations, it would be wrong to assume that the three nations have the same objectives. For example, the International Institute for Strategic Studies observes that this relationship remains largely transactional in nature rather than driven by a common cause or ideology:

[I]t is wrong to assume that each trio member endorses the others’ goals. In particular, neither Putin nor Xi will repeat the experiences of Mao and Stalin by supporting North Korea in a bloody peninsular war. The stakes today are far higher for both countries on two fronts: nuclear risk, and their strong commercial ties with South Korea.


Although DPRK military flows to Russia appear to have commenced, nothing in the long history of Moscow–Pyongyang relations suggests that a stable, close or effective partnership is likely, whether in arms, space or elsewhere. China will remain the dominant outside power in Pyongyang, a role it achieved by playing its cards on the peninsula more subtly, which it will continue to do. Xi may not see merit in Lavrov’s idea of three-way security talks. Similarly, [Russian defence minister] Shoigu’s suggestion that all three states could hold joint naval manoeuvres sounds unlikely. Even if this happens, it would not create a triple alliance, or match the growing tripartite military and other cooperation between Japan, South Korea and the US.[69]

6. UK government position on North Korea

The ‘Integrated review refresh 2023’, the UK government’s updated national security and international policy, identified what it called the “persistent destabilising behaviour” of North Korea.[70] Such sentiments have been regularly expressed by UK diplomats, including by Ambassador Barbara Woodward at the UN Security Council meeting on North Korea on 27 November 2023, who said of North Korean missile tests:

These are clear threats to global peace and security which is the core responsibility of [the UN Security Council] and they violate multiple Security Council resolutions.[71]

The ambassador called upon North Korea to reopen its borders and re-engage with UN agencies and for the UN Security Council to “reiterate the depth of our resolve to combating proliferation”. She also called for North Korea to abide by its public commitment not to sell arms to Russia and to “cease these launches, return to dialogue, and take credible steps towards denuclearisation and peace on the Korean Peninsula”.[72]

In an article in the Sun on Sunday newspaper published on 3 December 2023, his first comment on the issue since becoming foreign secretary, Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton also highlighted the dangers posed by North Korea’s actions. He said he had seen briefings which “make clear the risks of cyberattacks and industrial espionage” coming from North Korea and other hostile nations.[73]

The UK was also a signatory to the statement issued by the foreign ministers of the G7 on the launch of North Korea’s spy satellite on 22 November 2023, which “condemned the action in the strongest terms”, describing it as a “flagrant violation of relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions”.[74] The statement again called for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula:

North Korea continues to expand its unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities and to escalate its destabilizing activities. We reiterate our call for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and demand that North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons, existing nuclear programs, and any other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missile programs in a complete, verifiable, and irreversible manner in accordance with all relevant UNSCRs [UN Security Council Resolutions]. North Korea cannot and will never have the status of a nuclear-weapon state under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

North Korea’s reckless action must be met with a swift, united, and robust international response, particularly by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). We urge UNSC members to follow through on their commitments and call on all UN member states to fully and effectively implement relevant UNSCRs. In this context, we reiterate our strong condemnation on arms transfers from North Korea to Russia, which directly violate relevant UNSCRs. We urge North Korea and Russia to abide by these UNSCRs and immediately cease all such activities. In addition, we are deeply concerned about the potential for any transfer of nuclear- or ballistic missile-related technology to North Korea, which would further threaten the peace and stability of the region as well as across the globe.

We deplore North Korea’s systematic human rights violations and abuses, and its choice to prioritize its unlawful WMD and ballistic missile programs over the welfare of the people in North Korea. We continue to call on North Korea to engage in meaningful diplomacy and accept the repeated offers of dialogue put forward by Japan, the United States, and the Republic of Korea without preconditions.[75]

On the issue of the supply of North Korean weapons and munitions to Russia, a spokesperson for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office added:

The UK strongly condemns Russia’s decision to source arms from North Korea for its illegal war. We urge North Korea to cease its arms supply to Russia and abide by its public commitments to not sell arms to Russia.

Russia’s sourcing of weapons from North Korea violates UN Security Council resolutions—including resolutions Russia itself voted for, and highlights Putin’s desperation and isolation on the global stage.

The transfer of money, military equipment or technology bolstering North Korea’s own illegal weapons programmes would significantly undermine the UN’s long-standing commitment to security, and further destabilise the region. A better armed North Korea is not in the interests of its neighbours, the region and the world.

North Korea is subject to a robust sanctions regime, and we will continue to work with our partners to ensure that North Korea pays a high price for supporting Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine.[76]

In November 2023, the UK government announced that it had signed a joint accord with the Republic of Korea that will include a defence agreement which will see both nations jointly enforce UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions on North Korea for the first time.[77] The accord, signed between Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Republic of Korea President Yoon Suk Yeol during his state visit to the UK, will see the two countries conduct joint sea patrols to prevent goods and material being smuggled into North Korea in violation of sanctions. The government stated that this will support closer relations between the Royal Navy and the ROK Navy during future cooperation to counter this activity, and “support the security of the Indo-Pacific region”.

The UK does continue to do limited trade with North Korea. According to the Department for Business and Trade, total trade in goods and services (exports plus imports) between the UK and North Korea was £67mn in the four quarters to the end of Q2 2023, a decrease of 33.7% or £34mn in current prices from the four quarters to the end of Q2 2022.[78]

Of this £67mn:

  • total UK exports to North Korea amounted to £39mn in the four quarters to the end of Q2 2023 (a decrease of 45.8% or £33mn in current prices, compared to the four quarters to the end of Q2 2022)
  • total UK imports from North Korea amounted to £28mn in the four quarters to the end of Q2 2023 (a decrease of 3.4% or £1mn in current prices, compared to the four quarters to the end of Q2 2022)

North Korea was the UK’s 166th largest trading partner in the four quarters to the end of Q2 2023, accounting for less than 0.1% of total UK trade.

7. Read more

Cover image by Micha Brändli on Unsplash.


  1. US Defence Intelligence Agency, ‘North Korea military power: A growing regional and global threat’, 2021. Return to text
  2. As above. Return to text
  3. US Congressional Research Service, ‘US-North Korea relations’, updated 24 April 2023. Return to text
  4. BBC News, ‘North Korea: What missiles does it have?’, 5 September 2023. Return to text
  5. Arms Control Association, ‘The Six-Party talks at a glance’, January 2022. Return to text
  6. US Congressional Research Service, ‘US-North Korea relations’, updated 24 April 2023. Return to text
  7. As above. Return to text
  8. BBC News, ‘North Korea fires intercontinental ballistic missile after threatening US’, 12 July 2023; and ‘North Korea says it simulated nuclear strike on South’, 31 August 2023. Return to text
  9. BBC News, ‘North Korea: Kim Jong Un reveals ‘nuclear attack submarine’, 8 September 2023. Return to text
  10. RUSI, ‘Toxic inheritance: Assessing North Korea’s chemical weapons capability’, accessed December 2023. Return to text
  11. US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, ‘North Korea cyber threat overview and advisories’, accessed November 2023; and Office of the Director of National Intelligence, ‘Annual threat assessment of the US intelligence community’, 6 February 2023. Return to text
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  63. As above. Return to text
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