Enforcing Sanctions on North Korea Is an Opportunity for Cooperation at Sea


Since January 2018, a game of cops and robbers has played out in the 1,000-nautical-mile stretch of ocean between Taiwan and the 38th parallel. The “robbers” are dozens of Chinese, Taiwanese, Liberian, Sri Lankan, and unflagged tankers engaged in the illicit transfer of sanctioned goods to North Korea and incentivized by a low-risk, high-reward payoff structure. The “cops” are a multinational coalition known as the Enforcement Coordination Cell, consisting of the United States and its Five Eyes partners (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom) alongside South Korea, Japan, and France. The coalition enforces the maritime component of United Nations Security Council resolutions — 2375 and 2397 — designed to deter and punish North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear tests by limiting its import and export of petroleum, coal, iron, lead, and seafood products.



In its current form, the Enforcement Coordination Cell is ineffective and a multinational coalition only in name, with the United States playing an outsized role in the effort. Moreover, North Korea sanctions enforcement is one of many challenges facing the United States in East Asia. The rise of China as a maritime power, dwindling U.S. naval resources, and an increasingly complex regional security environment will require the United States to find new means to achieve strategic objectives in the region.

Accordingly, the Joe Biden administration and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command should leverage the Enforcement Coordination Cell as the foundation of a cooperative approach to maritime security in East Asia. When American allies and partners contribute resources, the coalition enhances regional security by improving interoperability and warfighting capabilities of participating states, lowers the financial and material costs of maintaining a U.S. naval presence in East Asia, improves the military relationship between Japan and South Korea, and creates space for cooperation with China in the maritime domain.

On Watch with the Enforcement Coordination Cell

In 2020, I spent eight months deployed to the East China Sea, playing the role of the cops in the game described above. I personally witnessed that the Enforcement Coordination Cell’s mission is difficult and the efficacy of the sanctions regime is questionable. I also observed Japanese and South Korean officers working together on the same staff, Chinese warships querying suspected smugglers in support of the U.N. mandate, and a Chilean warship operating alongside the U.S. Navy in the Western Pacific — all unlikely feats of maritime cooperation were it not for the coalition.

At the tactical level, naval warships and aircraft patrol the East China and Yellow seas in search of suspected smugglers. At the operational level, the Enforcement Coordination Cell’s international staff, stationed onboard the command ship USS Blue Ridge, synthesizes intelligence on North Korea’s maritime smuggling network and directs interdiction and collection efforts by the aforementioned ships and aircraft. At the strategic level, U.S. intelligence agencies work alongside the State and Treasury departments to uncover evidence of smuggling and sanction individuals and organizations that violate U.N. sanctions.

The sanctions regime’s overall effectiveness is difficult to assess. While North Korean ballistic missile tests dropped from 21 in 2017 to nine in 2020, petroleum imports increased during the same period and continue to exceed the sanctions cap of 500,000-gallons per year, according to the most recent biannual U.N. Panel of Experts report. These data suggest that the tactics employed by the coalition cell are not generating policy shifts within North Korea. It is likely that other factors such as the current coronavirus pandemic and sanctions against financial institutions and individuals may be responsible for a more benign North Korea in 2020, rather than the cell.

Moreover, despite the international makeup of the Enforcement Coordination Cell’s staff, the majority of participating ships, aircraft, and intelligence assets belong to the United States. In fact, the number of partner militaries monitoring U.N. sanctions on North Korea decreased in 2020 by about two-thirds, though this is in part due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, the U.S. Seventh Fleet’s restrictive rules of engagement, overworked and under-resourced ships, and the presence of higher priority missions in the region — such as freedom of navigation operations and ballistic missile defense — further decrease the effectiveness of the group.

Making the Enforcement Mechanism Work for the United States

Coalitions enable member states to pursue shared interests at reduced political and material costs. In other words, increased cooperation will improve the effectiveness of the coalition and decrease the costs not only of enforcing North Korean sanctions but also patrolling the contested waters of East Asia. For example, in 2019, Indonesian authorities seized, and subsequently handed over to the United States, a North Korean cargo vessel violating U.N. sanctions on coal exports. The U.S. Navy is not authorized to interdict North Korean vessels or conduct opposed boardings, but allied and partner navies may not be hampered by the same restrictions.

Likewise, the presence of maritime patrol aircraft from Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea, enhances surveillance of China’s near seas and generates naval interoperability between American allies. The former not only enables the coordination cell to locate more smugglers, but also improves the ability of the United States to respond to Chinese maritime “grey-zone” activities. The latter benefit increases American allies’ preparedness for high-end combat operations in the region should the need ever arise.

Furthermore, cooperation between the U.S., Japanese, and South Korean militaries at sea, and at the staff level, improves interoperability between three of the region’s most powerful militaries and helps mend the strained relationship between the two regional powers. Japan and South Korea remain suspicious of each other due to ongoing territorial disputes and centuries of Japanese conquest and atrocities on the Korean Peninsula. Repeated interaction between the two countries’ militaries reduces distrust and helps the United States manage its East Asia alliances.

Expanding the group’s membership to include more Indo-Pacific states could further grow the scope and scale of the group’s capabilities and regional presence, respectively. Inviting India into the coalition, which would bring Indian naval power east of Malacca for the first time since World War II, is in line with U.S. and Indian strategic objectives and would increase interoperability and information sharing with a critical counterweight to Chinese maritime power. Likewise, including Vietnam and the Philippines in the Enforcement Coordination Cell would expand the coalition’s robust maritime surveillance network into the South China Sea — where both states are threatened by China’s excessive maritime claims — and improve those states’ naval proficiency.

U.S. Indo-Pacific Command can increase participation by highlighting the broader benefits the coalition brings to regional security. For example, frequent patrols by a multinational coalition of warships and aircraft can mitigate fishing and territorial disputes in the East China Sea and decrease strategic ambiguity in East Asia’s maritime commons.

The U.S. Department of State can attract more states to support the Enforcement Coordination Cell by communicating the shared political interests described above. Simultaneously, U.S. Navy foreign area officers and the Defense Security Cooperation Agency should tie future foreign military sales to commitments from partner states to contribute their new naval assets to specific combined operations to further incentivize cooperation. For example, the upcoming transfer of a decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard cutter to Vietnam could be accompanied by a request that the cutter be used to support the coalition.

Technology transfers through foreign military sales and financing have the added benefit of improving technical interoperability between navies. Thus, states which agree to participation in the Enforcement Coordination Cell should be offered a plan of action with demonstrable milestones to guarantee access to naval cooperative systems such as the Combined Regional Enterprise Information Exchange System (CENTRIXS), and the Link 11 tactical data link. The former enables secure communication between units at sea, while the later shares tactical positioning data of friendly units, Chinese warships and military aircraft, as well as suspected smugglers. Currently, these systems are only available to two East Asian states — South Korea and Japan.

Resolving technical operability challenges between the region’s navies will require the United States to take a more liberal approach to technology sharing. In the future, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command should invest in a communications and information exchange network like NATO’s mission networks to further improve the conduct of combined naval operations in East Asia.

It may take some time before traditionally neutral states invest manpower and material in the enforcement group. Consequently, building trust should start at the staff level. To this end, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command can offer observer status in the coalition to interested states, thereby affording their personnel a first-hand perspective of the contribution their navies can make. Additionally, the United States should rotate command of the cell between coalition members to ensure the mission remains multinational and not an American constabulary operation. These practices were successfully demonstrated in other recent cooperative naval efforts, most notably Combined Task Force 150, deployed to counter piracy around the Horn of Africa.

In the meantime, the U.S. Navy’s International Programs Office can advertise the Enforcement Coordination Cell during bilateral and multilateral engagements, such as the semi-annual International Seapower Symposium. A precedent already exists for building naval coalitions in this manner. In 2005, Adm. Mike Mullen used this forum to promote his 1,000-ship navy concept — a multinational fleet working together to pursue shared interests on the high seas.

The Chinese Elephant in the Room

China remains the elephant in the room regarding the Enforcement Coordination Cell. It is wary of military blocs and prefers to maintain unilateral relations with individual states. Yet, arguably the most underrated aspect of enforcement operations is persistent engagement between U.S. and coalition naval forces, and the People’s Liberation Army Navy. For example, Chinese warships and military aircraft always shadow coalition vessels in the region. These repeated interactions improve the likelihood of achieving mutual strategic objectives and increase trust.

Persistent interaction between coalition forces and the Chinese military also benefits the enforcement mission. For example, Chinese naval forces are present when coalition warships query suspected smugglers and occasionally participate in supporting U.N. sanctions by interrogating the smuggling vessels. While the United States should not expect the Chinese navy to start boarding Chinese or North Korean-flagged smugglers, even limited Chinese participation would prevent smugglers from using Chinese territorial waters to evade coalition forces, thereby drastically improving the coalition’s effectiveness.

Formalizing U.S.-Chinese maritime cooperation may not be possible given the two powers’ divergent views on maritime claims in the East and South China Seas. Nonetheless, common ground already exists in areas of counter-piracy, counter-narcotics, and counter-terrorism. Enforcing U.N. sanctions can be added to this list. In the future, liaison officer exchanges and combined staff work and maritime patrols in support of the Enforcement Coordination Cell could reduce the heightened level of tension between China and the United States in East Asia.


The coalition generates strategic outcomes for the United States beyond the scope of stopping petroleum imports to North Korea. Cooperation at sea improves the United States’ ability to surveil China’s near seas, increases interoperability between the U.S. Navy and partner states’ militaries, eases the operational burden on the U.S. Seventh Fleet, offers an avenue for cooperation with China, and improves the strategic and military relationship between South Korea and Japan. So why has the United States not taken the steps outlined above since the cell was established in 2018?

Chinese uncooperativeness and mistrust of the U.S. alliance system — as well as the Donald Trump administration’s erratic policy shifts regarding China and North Korea and transactional and bilateral approach to international affairs — impeded maritime collaboration in East Asia over the past four years. As a result, American security cooperation initiatives throughout the region have been limited to foreign military sales and financing, and a series of disparate bilateral naval and military exercises. Similarly, naval cooperation with China dwindled after its navy was uninvited from the region’s largest multinational naval exercise, Rim of the Pacific, in 2018.

Biden has stated that he willing to “work with China” and that he will place alliances and multinational cooperation at the forefront of his foreign policy. Such an approach creates the opportunity to bring new life to fledgling organizations such as the Enforcement Coordination Cell. But, in order to leverage the enforcement group to achieve greater strategic ends, the Biden administration and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command will first need to align primary and secondary political objectives with existing and potential member states, demonstrate the benefits of cooperation to China, and resolve naval interoperability challenges that have plagued East Asia for decades.



Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Artem Sherbinin is a U.S. Navy surface warfare officer stationed in Yokosuka, Japan. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, and holds a master’s in Security Studies from Georgetown University. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not reflect the official policies of the U.S. government, Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or the Enforcement Coordination Cell.

Image: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Will Gaskill

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