September 12, 2017
TSC IntelBrief: The United Nations Acts Against North Korea
On September 11, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to impose its strongest sanctions yet against North Korea. The vote follows last week’s claimed hydrogen bomb test by North Korea - by far the largest of the six nuclear tests Pyongyang has conducted. Tensions on the Korean peninsula remain extremely high, yet the push for another round of sanctions may create an opening for talks and discussions between the isolated and increasingly menacing country and the international community. More sanctions also mean more risks—particularly if North Korea perceives them as crippling—but the recent dramatic clash of rhetoric and reality between the U.S. and North Korea is far riskier.
The new sanctions are tough, both economically and diplomatically. The complete fuel oil ban was modified at China and Russia’s insistence, with China deeply concerned a destabilizing humanitarian crisis could form on its border, should the Kim Jong-un regime collapse. Under the Security Council’s terms, refined and crude oil imports to Pyongyang will be cut by 30%; textile exports from North Korea are completely banned; and countries are required to let agreements expire for nearly 100,000 expatriate North Korean workers who provide valuable remittances back home (though this restriction will be delayed). These sanctions are on top of existing restrictions that severely limit fishing and coal exports.
North Korea has evaded sanctions and restrictions for years, through illegal smuggling and sales of weapons and weapons components to countries such as Pakistan, Libya and Iran. While North Korean ships have infrequently been stopped and searched for illegal arms shipments, the new resolution authorizes greater scrutiny of Pyongyang’s vessels in their respective waters and ports. The U.S. pushed to include language that mentioned using military force to compel compliance with these searches but the language was dropped during the negotiations. Still, using the new authority to seize assets and ban ships proved to be smuggling for North Korea should help curb one of the regimes few remaining revenue streams.
For its part, Pyongyang warned the U.S. not to pursue stronger sanctions, saying in typical hyperbolic fashion, it would lead to the ‘greatest pain and suffering’ that the U.S. had ever experienced. There is a risk the regime believes the new sanctions are too crippling and present a real threat to its existence, which played a part in China’s rejection of a total ban on fuel. As with all such endeavors, the strategy is to pressure Pyongyang without cornering it while providing face-saving and even beneficial avenues the regime can take to avoid military confrontation. The focus is on changing North Korea’s unacceptable behavior, not changing the regime. Flying ballistic missiles over Japan, threatening Guam, and an escalating series of nuclear weapons tests are indeed unacceptable behavior. The new U.N resolution might not bring about the desired change in Pyongyang’s threatening behavior but it is the best approach to bring about talks that could lead to a peaceful resolution of this long crisis.
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