Issue Brief

The United Nations and North Korea: Denuclearization and Human Security

The UN can contribute to human security and stability on the Korean Peninsula, and it should be empowered to do more
By Esther S. Im

The breakdown of the latest iteration of U.S.-DPRK negotiations has shown the limits of a security and zero-sum-driven approach at the expense of an increasingly expansive agenda to shore up stability on the Korean Peninsula. The growing friction between the U.S. and China and the way “strategic competition” may shape the geopolitics of the region also engender a reassessment of coercive tools like sanctions. In the face of these challenges, the UN can and does play an important role. Although it is unlikely to broker a breakthrough on the Korean Peninsula, the UN can provide a forum for diplomatic engagement, raise accountability on human rights, provide humanitarian assistance, and build governance capacity in pursuit of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. This role for the UN becomes increasingly important as the world enters an ever more difficult situation and uneasy balance with North Korea.

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If there were ever a well-suited institution to help address the multifaceted problems posed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea), it would certainly be the United Nations (UN). Founded 75 years ago on the pillars of peace and security, human rights, rule of law, and development, the UN stands uniquely mandated to address the core issues that have made North Korea an international quandary: a confrontational nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program, widespread human rights violations, and chronic humanitarian issues. The overlapping history of the founding of the UN, the division of the Korean Peninsula, and the involvement of the UN in developing the international response to the Korean War also imbues a sense of responsibility for continued UN engagement and attention to the crisis on the Peninsula.

The reality on the ground is that nearly 70 years since the signing of the armistice agreement that has frozen but not ended the Korean War and 30 years since North Korea’s nuclear weapons program first sparked an international crisis, the path towards peace and security remains elusive. and the risks for conflict and instability are growing. The breakdown of the latest iteration of U.S.-DPRK negotiations has shown the limits of a security- and zero-sum-driven approach at the expense of an increasingly expansive agenda to shore up stability on the Peninsula. Analysts are now raising the hard question of how to ground North Korea policy in a more realistic set of assumptions, namely that immediate (and upfront) denuclearization is untenable.1  Note: See: Jenny Town, “After the parade, North Korea’s steady progress matters more than its big new missile,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 16 October 2020,; Frank Aum and George A. Lopez, “A Bold Peace Offensive to Engage North Korea,” War on the Rocks, 4 December 2020,; Markus Garlauskas, “It’s Time to Get Real on North Korea,” United States Institute of Peace, 8 February 2021,; Eric Brewer and Sue Mi Terry, “It’s Time for Realistic Bargain with North Korea,” Foreign Affairs, 25 March 2021,; Van Jackson, On The Brink, Cambridge University Press, 2019; Adam Mount and Andrea Berger, “Report of the International Study Group on North Korea Policy,” Federation of American Scientists,    The growing friction between the U.S. and China and the way “strategic competition” may shape the geopolitics of the region also engender a reassessment of coercive tools like sanctions.

In the face of these challenges, the UN can and does play an important role. Although it is unlikely to broker a breakthrough on the Korean Peninsula, the UN can provide a forum for diplomatic engagement, raise accountability on human rights, provide humanitarian assistance, and build governance capacity in pursuit of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. This role for the UN becomes increasingly important as the world enters an ever more difficult situation and uneasy balance with North Korea.

Key to understanding the opportunities for the UN to contribute in this environment begins first with a delineation of what we mean by the UN and recognition that it is not a monolithic institution. In the context of North Korea, the tendency to think of the UN synonymously with the UN Security Council (UNSC) obfuscates the vast array of UN agencies and the Secretariat that can and have played a meaningful role on a host of issues facing North Korea. Separating the component parts of the UN suggests that an effective “United Nations” lies not with principal member state organs like the UNSC, a political forum where the entrenched interests of member states play out. Instead, the UN’s value comes from its ability to engage on multiple tracks through its independent and specialized agencies carrying out technical work like the UN Development Programme or the UN World Food Programme and the UN Secretariat and Secretary-General, who carry out the substantive and administrative work of the United Nations. This is not to say the activities of the latter are perfect, but to suggest reducing our evaluation of the UN’s role vis-à-vis North Korea to the UNSC’s ability to achieve North Korea’s denuclearization limits creative thinking on how to engage North Korea to address a range of linked challenges to stability on the Peninsula.

How Did We Get Here? The Role of the UNSC

The United Nations Security Council has driven a significant part of the UN’s approach on North Korea and so it bears value to reflect on its role, efficacy, and shaping of the international response. Tasked as the principal UN body for maintaining international peace and security, the UNSC has been a natural forum for this issue. North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006—in defiance of the nonproliferation principles and against the backdrop of deteriorating multilateral talks—pushed the UNSC to respond by adopting its first sanctions resolution on North Korea, resolution 1718 under its Chapter 7, Article 41 authorities. This first round of UN sanctions included a ban on nonproliferation exports, an arms embargo, asset freezes, and ban on luxury goods, reflecting a shift towards targeted sanctions that started in the mid-1990s following the criticism of the unintended effects of comprehensive sanctions on civilian populations and the recent UNSC oil-for-food corruption scandal in Iraq.2  Note: “Special Research Report: UN Sanctions,” Security Council Report,; Robert McMahon, “The Impact of the UN Oil-for-Food Scandal,” Council on Foreign Relations, 11 May 2006,  

Ten UN Security Council sanctions resolutions later and after dead-end negotiations under U.S. presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, what started as a narrow sanctions regime meant to target financing of and procurement for its nuclear weapons and ballistic weapons program has turned into a nearly comprehensive embargo. Expanded sanctions measures have included an increasingly long list of banned critical exports and imports, mandatory inspection and interdiction of illicit cargo, prohibition on the employment of North Korean labor, and the excision of North Korea from international financial systems.

Despite the significant breadth of the UN sanctions regime, it has not had the intended effect of “significantly imped[ing] North Korea’s ability to develop further its illicit nuclear and ballistic missile programs, as well as its proliferation activities,” in the words of former U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, who oversaw the adoption of several UNSC resolutions.

Year after year the Panel of Experts (PoE) reports the same basic findings that:

  • “The nuclear and ballistic missile programmes of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remain intact and the country continues to defy Security Council resolutions.” (2019);
  • North Korea has developed “evasion techniques that are increasing in scale, scope and sophistication” (2017); and
  • “The panel continues to observe Member States’ lack of implementation of the Security Council resolutions, noting that inaction and low reporting levels may be due to lack of will, technical capacity and/or issues within their domestic legal systems” (2016).

Despite the relative consensus that “North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile-related activities are a “clear threat to international peace and security,” there is little consensus on how to achieve denuclearization in practice. Entrenched and conflicting member-state interests and shifts in U.S. policy across administrations over time have made a unified UNSC approach impossible. In particular, significant disagreement between the United States and China over how hard to pressure North Korea with sanctions has meant that the adopted sanction resolutions represent significantly negotiated compromises. Moreover, China and Russia have stymied efforts within the 1718 Sanctions Committee to improve sanctions implementation, for example, by reluctantly engaging in new designations and hamstringing efforts to provide clear guidance through implementation assistance notices to member states.3  Note: Author’s firsthand experience on the 1718 Committee from 2013 to 2014.    Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, a former member of the PoE, criticized the UNSC regime arguing, “Sanctions are ‘pick-and-shovel work,’ requiring constant support and tightening to sustain pressure, close loopholes, and address rapidly changing evasion practices. This necessitates both new resolutions and the implementation of a range of measures to continually prevent sanctions erosion.”4  Note: Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt,” Maximum Pressure Against North Korea, RIP,” 38 North, 7 October 2019,    But the reluctance of a proactive sanctions approach stemming from this geopolitical dynamic has meant that timely sanctions resolutions or new designations are limited to when North Korea launches long-range missiles or engages in nuclear tests, which Kleine-Ahlbrandt argues gives North Korea time to enhance its evasion techniques and stockpile prohibited items.5  Note: Ibid.    

The lack of enforcement measures to address weak implementation or violations further undermines the sanctions regime’s effectiveness. The limits of this are particularly acute in the case of China. As North Korea’s largest trading partner and tacit ally with an interest in reducing sources of instability at its borders, China has used its veto power and influence to manage the pressure valve and shield against its own record of weak implementation. A recent example of this is the delay in agreement on a conversion rate for petroleum exports nearly 4 years after the adoption of Resolution 2397.6  Note: Min Chao Choy, “China, Russia finally agree with UN on conversion rate for North Korean fuel cap,” NK News, 22 January 2021,    As a result, the PoE report for 2020 included an assessment that North Korea has been able to import between three to eight times the legal fuel limit set out in the latest resolution.7  Note: UN Security Council, Note by the President of the Security Council – Final report of the Panel of Experts established pursuant to resolution 1874 (2009), 4 March 2021,; Chad O’Carroll, “North Korea imported up to eight ties its legal fuel limit in 2020: UN report,” NK News, 10 February 2021,    Despite these UNSC challenges, the tacit consensus that undergirds the sanctions regime provides an important marker for the international community’s strong opposition to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and a ballistic missile program. This multilateralization could also prove important to any future nuclear agreement with North Korea as shown by the durability of the Iran nuclear agreement following a shift in U.S. policy under the Trump administration and its subsequent withdrawal from the agreement. The endorsement of the deal through UNSC Resolution 2231 helped to stymie U.S. efforts to snap back UNSC sanctions that might have endangered the agreement.8  Note: Kelsey Davenport, “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, March 2021,    

More than anything, detached from a sustained diplomatic process or negotiations, the UNSC sanctions become a purely punitive measure that may push the denuclearization horizon further away given how North Korea has shown a capacity to withstand and adapt under UN sanctions. So long as geopolitical deadlock among UNSC members remains, the Council will be limited in its ability to address North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile program.

Preventive Diplomacy and the UN Good Offices

When the Security Council adopted Resolution 1718 in 2006, the then North Korean Ambassador to the United Nations, Pak Gil Yon dramatically walked out of the UNSC chamber after announcing that it “totally rejects” the sanction resolution and describing the UNSC actions as “gangster-like.”9  Note: “UN Slaps sanctions on North Korea,” BBC News, 14 October 2006,; United Nations Security Council, 5551st Meeting, S/PV.5551, 14 October 2006,    The 2006 episode is a good illustration of the contentious relationship between the UNSC and North Korea and the limits of that body as a diplomatic channel. North Korea has regularly refused to participate in subsequent UNSC meetings, often calling the UNSC resolutions illegal.10  Note: Michelle Ye Hee Lee, “North Korea Lashes out over ‘vicious’ U.N. sanctions,” Washington Post, 12 September 2017,    However, just because North Korea compartmentalizes its engagement with the UN—like refusing to engage with the UNSC—it does not mean that the UN should likewise limit its engagement. In fact, it should compel the UN to redouble its engagement through other channels like the UN Secretariat and Secretary-General.

As a principally peace-making organization, the UN Secretariat and the Secretary-General have a stake in peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and the UN Charter outlines such responsibilities in Articles 98 and 99.11  Note: “The Secretary-General & Mediation,” United Nations,    With such hostility towards the UNSC, the UN Secretary-General and Secretariat can use their good offices to serve as an independent bridge, open lines of communication, and promote a peaceful resolution during especially tense periods. Channels of communication are important means to relay messages, test proposals, and reduce misinterpretation—the underlying logic of many strategic dialogues between adversarial partners.

A December 2017 trip to North Korea by then UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman demonstrates the value of such good offices. Invited by DPRK Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, Feltman and his visit offered a low-risk opportunity to defuse tensions, which at the time seemed on the precipice of leading to some kind of confrontation following North Korean nuclear testing and intercontinental ballistic missile launch and threatening verbal exchange between the U.S. and North Korea. However, the U.S. State Department expressed its strong opposition to the trip, arguing, “The first UN Secretariat political trip in nearly 8 years would legitimize Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile program… and reward bad behavior.”12  Note: “Evolving Roles of the United Nations in the Korean Peace Process,” National Committee on North Korea, 17 December 2020,    The trip only proceeded when it was brought directly to then-President Trump’s attention, who encouraged the trip, saying, “Jeff Feltman should go to Pyongyang and Jeff Feltman should tell the North Koreans I’m willing to sit down with Kim Jong-Un.”13  Note: “How Trump Offered Kim a ride on Air Force One,” BBC News, 20 February 2021,    

It is hard to say with any definitive sense the impact Feltman’s trip made, as he himself admits, but it undoubtedly helped to corroborate the seriousness of U.S. diplomacy and perhaps set up a small test of North Korean seriousness. While in North Korea, Feltman encouraged Ri Yong Ho to engage the UNSC, and just a week later North Korea’s Ambassador to the UN Ja Song Nam made a rare appearance at a UNSC meeting. The trip was an important intervention by the UN Secretariat and Secretary-General to do what they could to open lines of communication, reduce the risk of miscalculation, and prevent conflict that seemed imminent. It helped to show the UN as a reliable and credible messenger and the role it could play in preparing the diplomatic environment. This channel of communication can be particularly useful for the United States since communication itself between the U.S. and North Korea has been highly political. Instead of discouraging this positive role, member states like the US should empower and support this role. As Feltman has said, it should not be controversial for UN officials to meet its UN member state representatives.14  Note: “Evolving Roles of the United Nations in the Korean Peace Process.”     

The UN and Human Security in North Korea

North Korea has never been just a nuclear problem, and to treat it as such ignores the significant and equally important human security challenges in North Korea like human rights, humanitarian assistance, development, and other advancements in the welfare of the North Korean people. Engaging North Korea on these issues unconditionally and consistently will ultimately help to ensure greater stability on the Peninsula and to push the country towards transformation.15  Note: Adam Mount and Andrea Berger, “Report of the International Study Group on North Korea Policy,” Federation of American Scientists,    However, the burden of political capital, capacity, or will of any singular country to do this alone is insurmountable. That is in part why the United Nations exists, and the strength of the institution is its ability to engage the North on these multiple fronts simultaneously through its specialized agencies and the Secretariat. This kind of engagement can and should be an anchor of the international community’s interface with North Korea, as negotiations and progress on security issues wax and wane.

The current pandemic is helping to show some of the collective security and stability risks of not engaging and pushing progress on these human security issues. North Korea’s decision to shut down its borders is taking its economic and political isolation to an extreme and revealing the precariousness of the North Korean situation. An under-resourced public health system, widespread malnutrition, and limited access to clean water are compounding problems in North Korea that predate the pandemic, but they have made it especially vulnerable to highly infectious diseases like COVID-19. While it remains unclear at present what the status of infections might be in the country, it is clear that an outbreak could be devastating and hard to contain. In a worst-case scenario, an uncontrolled outbreak could act as a transmission vector to China and South Korea just when those countries have reduced their own infection rates. In an increasingly globalized world, transnational challenges and crises, such as pandemics but also climate change, are showing that we are only as strong as our weakest link. And while the external risks are important, the internal burdens are even greater. Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, warned in March, “The further isolation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea with the outside world during the COVID-19 pandemic appears to exacerbate entrenched human rights violations.”16  Note: Stephanie Nebehay, “North Korea measures to stem COVID-19 worsens abuses, hunger: U.N. expert,” Reuters, 3 March 2021,     Moreover, the depressed state of trade for over a year does not bode well for the food security situation in the country and concerns loom large with the memory of the 1990s famine in the country.

The UN has a long track record of humanitarian assistance to the country with six resident UN entities (FAO, UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF, WFP, and WHO17  Note: Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), UN Development Programme (UNDP), UN Population Fund (UNFPA), UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), World Food Programme (WFP), and the World Health Organization (WHO).   ) working to provide assistance to the country’s most vulnerable groups in areas of food security, nutrition, health, and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH).18  Note: “The UN Strategic Framework 2017-2021,” United Nations DPR Korea,    The latest annual report from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which outlines the humanitarian needs and priorities in North Korea, estimates that 10.4 million people, roughly 40% of the population, are in need of some form of life-saving assistance, with the UN agencies working to target half that population. However, chronic underfunding is a significant issue that has forced agencies to scale back programs, and OCHA warns that some partners may be forced to “close projects that serve as a lifeline for millions of people.”19  Note: “DPR Korea Needs and Priorities 2020,” UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, April 2020,    Over the last five years, the annual humanitarian appeals have only been 20% funded on average.20  Note: “DPR Korea Needs and Priorities 2020,” OCHA Financial Tracking Service,    At a CSIS conference in 2018, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Shallene Hall lamented that these funding challenges are rolling back hard-earned progress. She noted UNICEF has steadily gained more access to previously closed-off counties, like in the sensitive Jagang Province, but there is no aid to bring to the country or programs to monitor because of underfunding.

COVID-19 restrictions have made this work even more difficult, with the World Food Programme (WFP) warning that it may be forced to close programs if restrictions on food imports cannot be addressed.21  Note: Jeongmin Kim, “More than half of North Korea is hungry, and a UN food program may soon drop out,” NK News, 24 February 2021,    Related travel restrictions have forced all UN staff out of the country. Despite these challenges, this humanitarian bridge is critical to the UN’s work, and navigating the return of assistance as well as facilitation, monitoring, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to the country through the COVAX mechanism is the next priority and challenge for the UN humanitarian agencies.

Notwithstanding the pandemic and funding challenges, the UN and the international community should consider expanding this humanitarian agenda towards development. For the first time since the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals were adopted in 2015, North Korea submitted a voluntary report in June 2021 on its progress towards meeting the goals.22  Note: “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Voluntary National Review on the Implementation of the 2030 Agenda,” UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, June 2021,    While the self-reporting should be reviewed with some degree of healthy skepticism, the report can also be seen as a barometer of North Korean priorities, interests, and, therefore, areas potentially open for strategic engagement.23  Note: Won-Gi Jung, “DPRK says it’s pursuing sustainable development, but experts remain skeptical,” NK News, 14 July 2021,    For example, North Korea acknowledges slow progress in ensuring safe drinking water and clean sanitation and lack of capacity of health personnel, areas where the UN has been supporting and could help to expand international engagement—but where it remains limited by underfunding.

Human rights are also a significant area where the UN has contributed a valiant effort to obtain accountability in North Korea. International NGOs have worked tirelessly to document human rights violations in the country, and the landmark 2014 Commission of Inquiry Report on the human rights situation in North Korea was a significant achievement. The Report provided high-level attention to human rights in North Korea, consolidated an evidence-based record of abuses, and laid down a strong marker of the international community’s opposition to the widespread human rights violations in the country and possible crimes against humanity. The establishment of a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) office in 2015 to provide continuous monitoring of the DPRK human rights situation is also a critical accountability mechanism of the UN. While North Korea has continued to deny access to UN human rights officials to investigate, in 2017 North Korea surprisingly invited Catalina Devandas Aguilar, the UN Special Rapporteur for Persons with Disabilities (appointed by the UN Human Rights Council), to visit. While a single visit alone does not reflect progress in human rights, it shows an opening where the UN can continue to push for engagement, change, and capacity building. Former Under-Secretary-General Feltman has also revealed that the DPRK participated for the first time in a human rights workshop convened by OHCHR in May 2019, sending four representatives from the Supreme People’s Assembly and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.24  Note: “Evolving Roles of the United Nations in the Korean Peace Process.”    

Disaster risk reduction, especially in light of climate change, is an area that seems particularly ripe for engagement and capacity building. In 2020, North Korea experienced an unprecedented season of typhoons, with some hitting in areas already reeling from previous damage. While North Korea has improved its early warning measures, as Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein has noted in his observation of state media sharing greater information about pending weather and risk, other gaps remain in its disaster risk management practices.25  Note: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, “North Korea’s Disaster Management: Getting Better, but a Long Way to Go,” 38 North, 14 September 2020,    North Korea continues to rebuild houses in flood zones, and, as Jay Song and Benjamin Habib note in The Diplomat, this “rush to re-build in vulnerable locations, without accompanying flood protection infrastructure, betrays an ideological approach that eschews real expertise in flood mitigation in official planning.”26  Note: Jay Song and Benjamin Habib, “Typhoons and Human Insecurity in North Korea,” The Diplomat, 21 October 2020,    With such weather activities only likely to increase in frequency and intensity due to climate change, greater capacity building through the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) and support to North Korea’s implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction can be an opportunity and should be a priority.


There are valid reasons to look at the UN’s role on North Korea with some defeatism, given the significant passage of time and the seeming lack of progress, especially on the nuclear security threat. However, breaking down the component areas of the UN’s work in North Korea and taking a step back to look at the multiple problem sets, shows how the UN can and is helping to build progress in important human security areas and contributing to stability on the Korean Peninsula, and it should be empowered and supported to do more.

The work of the UNSC is important and multilateral efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs must continue, but there are limits to what this kind of approach can achieve given the geopolitical realities. Equally important for the international community is not to lose sight of the other side of the security coin and to ensure we are adequately addressing human security needs. It should not be an “either-or” approach. The challenge of integrating these moving forward should not dissuade us from trying.

It is unlikely that there will be a single, comprehensive solution to all the challenges posed by North Korea or a satisfactory theory of change to guide addressing them. In absence of this, the UN Secretariat and its agencies are an important source of multitrack interface between the international community and North Korea and a key channel to learn how to leverage broader transformation of the country and buffer against instability.

Esther S. Im works at the National Committee on North Korea, an NGO based in Washington, DC working to promote greater engagement and diplomacy between the United States and North Korea, including through humanitarian assistance, Track II dialogue, and other people-to-people exchange. Previously, she was a Junior Fulbright Researcher in South Korea (2015-16) and a Researcher at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations, where she covered DPRK sanctions, nonproliferation, and disarmament issues during South Korea’s rotation on the Security Council (2013-15). Esther has a M.Sc. in Foreign Service from Georgetown University (MSFS) and a B.A. in International Relations-Political Science from Wellesley College.

This issue brief is part of a series on strategic stability, disarmament, and Northeast Asia. The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the East Asia program, the Stimson Center, or the National Committee on North Korea.

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