The US has had a near total economic embargo on North Korea since 1950, when the Korean War broke out. Sanctions were gradually loosened beginning in 1989, but the two countries never reached anything approaching normalized trade relations. Nuclear weapon tests and other actions the US considers belligerent reversed that loosening trend and additional sanctions were imposed in 2007.
The UN Security Council imposed sanctions of its own on North Korea in 2006 after a nuclear test that year. Those sanctions have since been renewed and ratcheted up because of North Korea’s continued resistance to its calls for a halt to its nuclear weapon program.
Opinions differ whether sanctions will succeed in pushing Pyongyang to halt its nuclear weapon program. So far, they haven’t, although humanitarian organizations warn that North Korea faces a serious food shortage (which Pyongyang in part blames on the sanctions).
In a Council on Foreign Relations briefing, Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics says that North Korea’s financial ties to other countries are already so fragile that financial sanctions, which would cut off much of the funding for its nuclear program, could be crippling and prompt change.
But Charles Ferguson, president of the American Federation of Scientists and a former member of the Council on Foreign Relations nuclear weapons task force, writes in Foreign Policy that because of North Korea’s already extensive economic isolation, sanctions may only harden its resolve and drive it to sell its nuclear weapon technology to other countries, creating an even larger problem for the US.