Though North Korea has faced one of modern history’s most comprehensive sanction regimes, Pyongyang still raises cash overseas through a sophisticated network of agents tapping markets around the world.

Revenue from dozens of countries, including Russia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Myanmar, Syria, Malaysia and many others collectively represent a major challenge to the U.S. pressure campaign against North Korea, say U.S. officials and experts on North Korea.

The Trump administration was set to ratchet up pressure against these efforts with new sanctions as early as Tuesday, but decided to defer the move while U.S. talks with North Korea progress.

“The goal here is to achieve maximum pressure,” a senior administration official said last week after Mr. Trump said he was pulling out of the planned June summit. “We’re still short of that.”

According to one U.S. government estimate, the sanctions regime has cut off half the country’s international revenue.


Russia’s eastern ports, such as Nakhodka, provide Pyongyang routes to global markets for its coal, and North Korean financial agents are able to operate out of Russia to facilitate those transactions, according to U.S. and U.N. officials.

“Moscow’s trying to play the spoiler role,” a senior administration official said.

Conflicts in the Middle East also have been a boon to Pyongyang, according to U.S. and U.N. officials. North Korean weapons—including missile technology, rockets, guns and even evidence of chemical weapons—have been found across Syria, Iran, Yemen and Sudan, they say.

U.S. and U.N. officials say countries across Southeast Asia, including Myanmar and Vietnam, are other hotbeds of North Korean activities. Pyongyang and its operatives also are taking advantage of light corporate oversight in Hong Kong and other Asian hubs to hide transactions and trade through shell companies.

In Zimbabwe, U.N. experts are investigating reports of operations involving North Korea’s intelligence services and firms known to be facilitators of Pyongyang’s arms sales.

Besides trafficking in arms, cigarettes and illicit wildlife, regional experts say North Korea agents working in Zimbabwe are likely trying to tap into the Marange diamond fields, which are largely controlled by entities affiliated with Zimbabwe’s military.

Write to Ian Talley at

Appeared in the May 29, 2018, print edition as ‘Sanctions Target Vast Network.’

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