UN adopts sweeping new sanctions on North Korea

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UN adopts sweeping new sanctions on North Korea

by: Carol Morello and Steven Mufson | .
The Washington Post | .
published: March 03, 2016

The United Nations Security Council adopted harsh sanctions on North Korea Wednesday, imposing some of the strongest measures ever used to pressure Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

The new sanctions come two months after North Korea conducted a test of what it claimed was a hydrogen bomb and a month after it conducted what was widely described as a banned missile test under the guise of launching a satellite into space. But U.S. officials began drafting the measures three years ago, soon after North Korea conducted a previous nuclear test, in order to move swiftly the next time it happened.

The resolution is far more sweeping than existing sanctions requiring a link to proliferation activities. That precondition has been removed, in effect erasing the presumption of innocence.

It mandates cargo inspections for all goods going in and out of North Korea by sea or by air, chokes off supplies of most aviation fuel for its armed forces and bans the sale of all small arms and conventional weapons to Pyongyang. It also prohibits transactions that raise hard cash for North Korea through sales of its natural resources such as gold, iron ore and titanium.

The resolution doubles the blacklist of people and institutions already sanctioned and requires countries to expel North Korean diplomats involved in any sanctioned activities.

One small provision was designed to prevent Pyongyang from sending taekwondo instructors to train foreign police forces.

President Obama welcomed the sanctions as a firm and appropriate resoponse to North Korea's attempts to advance its program of weapons of mass destruction.

"Today, the international community, speaking with one voice, has sent Pyongyang a simple message: North Korea must abandon these dangerous programs and choose a better path for its people," he said.

The sanctions, which target the country's elites and avoid "adverse humanitarian consequences" for civilians, aim to accomplish what worked with less onerous sanctions on Iran by pushing the impoverished nation to quit pumping money into its nuclear program.

"Irrespective of whether they change their calculus tomorrow, it's going to be a lot harder for them to access the technology, the know-how and the money they've used to fuel their nuclear program," Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in a telephone interview. "This is really going to dramatically increase the isolation of the regime, and increase the cost of maintaining this program."

The resolution was presented by the United States with the support of China, a sharp reversal given Beijing's longtime support of its neighbor. Although the United States has long had an embargo on trade with North Korea, China has provided food and fuel and has been a key trading partner. In recent years, living conditions in North Korea have improved, thanks in large part to China.

In the past, China has been unwilling to tighten the screws on Pyongyang, in part out of concern for what an imploding, unstable North Korea might mean for China's own border. But recently North Korea has continued testing new weapons and missiles, disregarding China's warnings and personal envoys.

After North Korea on Jan. 6 detonated a new device — calling it a hydrogen bomb although most experts say it was a smaller nuclear device — China's ambassador to six-party talks, Wu Dawei, went to Pyongyang to urge restraint. Instead, North Korea announced while he was there that it would test a missile.

China's about-face suggests it has started to realize that doing nothing would impose growing political costs internationally — the possibility of a greater U.S. presence in the region and weaker relations with South Korea, which Beijing has been cultivating.

"I expect there's been a delayed recognition in China to the political price China was paying, with South Korea in particular, for its equivocation or outright silence about how to respond to North Korea and North Korea actions," said Jonathan Pollack, a specialist on East Asian politics and security at the Brookings Institution.

During a visit to Washington last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hinted at the strains in policy toward North Korea.

"On the one hand, we're saying to the international community . . . that the normal exchanges, especially those affecting the livelihoods of the North Korean people, should not be adversely affected," he said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "On the other hand, in order to uphold the international nuclear nonproliferation regime for the sake of denuclearization, our exchanges will be affected to some extent."

But some analysts question the depth of China's commitment to the latest round of sanctions.

"The real question going forward is whether China will enforce the new measures," said Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University. "My guess is that China will squeeze for a little bit, but not too hard, while the U.S. will want China to squeeze harder and for a longer period of time."

Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korean studies professor at Tufts University, said the U.N. sanctions, even if violated at some point in the future, will become increasingly meaningful if ordinary citizens in North Korea are adversely affected.

"The fact the U.N. is involved will lend greater legitimacy to the effort to sanction North Korea and enable others, like Japan and Europe, to shoulder some of the blame if there are negative repercussions from sanctions, so the blame doesn't just fall on the shoulders of the United States," he said.

Preparatory work on the sanctions began in early 2013, immediately after the Security Council passed a sanctions resolution in response to North Korea's third nuclear test, according to a State Department official who spoke about the sensitive negotiations on condition of anonymity. U.S. officials concluded that incrementally ratcheting up sanctions was insufficient, and more restrictive measures were needed, the official said.

As technical experts from many government agencies met to share ideas, a contingency draft of sanctions was repeatedly updated to be ready for a fourth nuclear test by North Korea.

On Jan. 8, two days after North Korea announced the fourth test, diplomats from the U.S. mission to the United Nations presented a draft to the Chinese mission. There was little response during January as China studied the proposed sanctions, which dropped requirements to prove proliferation links, as China had insisted on previously.

China did not change its position during a Jan. 27 visit to Beijing by Secretary of State John F. Kerry or during a Feb. 5 phone call that President Obama placed to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

But after the Feb. 7 missile test, the State Department official said, the Chinese gradually came around to the U.S. point of view. Throughout much of February, U.S. and Chinese diplomats met several times a day to discuss provisions that had to be approved by Beijing, the official said.

"At 8 or 9 at night, diplomats at the U.S. mission would schlep to the Chinese mission," the State Department official said. Then they would meet again the next day after Beijing had worked through the provisions overnight.

After a tentative agreement was reached early last week, U.S. officials had hoped for a quick adoption by the Security Council. But there were delays while Russia studied the sanctions to gauge their impact. Russia transports coal over a short stretch of railroad in North Korea to a port, and Moscow wanted reassurances it would not be banned, the official said.

In recent days, North Korea has boasted that more sanctions would not hurt. Now China as well as South Korea, Japan and the United States are awaiting its reaction.

"We've seen its reckless and unpredictable acts for years," said Power. "We've seen threats directed at the continental United States and the Republic of Korea. We've seen cyberattacks on American companies causing hundreds of millions of dollars. We do not expect a change of behavior overnight."

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