After weeks of negotiations and in the wake of its nuclear test on Jan. 6 and the subsequent missile test a day later, the U.N. Security Council has voted unanimously to impose the toughest sanctions yet on North Korea.
But the newer, stricter sanctions will be just as difficult to enforce as the older, softer ones as long as China — North Korea’s economic benefactor — has an interest in keeping Pyongyang stable. And even if the sanctions are enforced, they may not deter Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
At first blush, the new sanctions seem severe. They include a ban on the import of North Korean mineral resources if funds from such transactions contribute to the country’s nuclear weapons and missile program. They would require countries to expel North Korean diplomats accused of engaging in illicit activities abroad as well as expand sanctions to include a longer list of individuals and entities associated with the regime. The new sanctions would mandate inspections on all cargo going in and out of North Korea while banning the sale of aviation fuel (including rocket fuel), arms and luxury goods.
But a closer inspection reveals notable loopholes that will allow China to adjust how strictly it enforces sanctions. The requirement to inspect cargo passing through Chinese territory on the way to or from North Korea, for example, would not be difficult to avoid.
There is also no mechanism to enforce the ban on the import of North Korean minerals, which constitute about half of the country’s $2.5 billion in exports to China each year. It would need to be proven that North Korea used the funds to finance its nuclear weapons and missile program — something that would be very difficult. Beijing will exploit this loophole so that it can manage its trade relationship with Pyongyang as it sees fit.
The importance of China
China’s importance in determining the effectiveness of sanctions cannot be overstated.
China is North Korea’s dominant trade partner and chief supplier of oil. This role makes it the only country capable of changing North Korea’s behavior. Therefore, the extent to which China enforces the sanctions is essential to their success. And in fact, China seemed willing to toughen its position on North Korea before the U.N. adopted the resolution.
In December, China’s largest bank froze North Korean accounts. Beijing also decided to halt Chinese coal trade with North Korea in March 2016, and prohibited North Korean vessels from making port calls to Chinese ports. It even proposed direct U.S.-North Korea talks along denuclearization and peace treaty tracks — a departure from its previous stance.
But Beijing had ulterior motives for its behavior. China needed to demonstrate that it was ready to cooperate on tougher sanctions, if only as a way to bring North Korea to the negotiating table over its nuclear program, while sending a message to the government in Pyongyang that it should respect Chinese interests. China has been frustrated by how uncooperative North Korea was in multiparty talks over its nuclear weapons program and how egregiously it has violated previous sanctions against it.
Beijing is also concerned about the direction of North Korean leadership. Since Kim Jong Un came to power, he has repeatedly purged military officials and party leaders sympathetic to Chinese interests. The list of victims includes Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek. The Chinese government may be trying to remind North Korea just how important China is ahead of the Korean Worker’s Party Congress in May, where Kim is expected to finish consolidating his power and to appoint his loyalists to key posts.
Of course, there are limits to how enthusiastically China will enforce sanctions — economic collapse in North Korea would create a major refugee crisis in China. China and North Korea will therefore maintain their trade relationship, save for the possible occasional interruption by Beijing to prove China’s adherence to the U.N resolution.
A misplaced argument
But even with China’s increased cooperation, the new measures are probably not enough to compel Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. In fact, there is little that could. The argument that what worked for Iran will work for North Korea is mistaken. As arrested as Iran’s economy was, it was still much more diverse and globally integrated than North Korea’s, which is uniquely suited to withstand external pressure. That is, so long as China enforces sanctions only selectively.
As the impact of sanctions becomes more palpable, Kim may act provocatively to demonstrate resolve in the face of external pressure, as he is wont to do. Ultimately, the sanctions will serve to strengthen the regime’s consolidation around Kim’s personal and party rule.