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Sanctions and Defiance in North Korea

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Sanctions on North Korea have failed.

North Korea has now been sanctioned five times by the United Nations Security Council for its nuclear and missile tests: resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), 2094 (2013) and 2270 (2016).  UNSC Resolution 2270 is the strongest one yet, spelling out in great detail the proscribed goods and requiring that all parties neither import them from nor export them to North Korea.  Each resolution obliges the members to carry out the terms of the sanctions and (as the April 15 press statement of the UNSC says) “facilitate a peaceful and comprehensive solution through dialogue.” This is a case of mission impossible for two fundamental reasons: the sanctions will not work, and the fact of them impedes any chance for a “peaceful and comprehensive solution.”

Foremost among the obstacles to an effective North Korea sanctions regime is smuggling along the China-DPRK (North Korea) border.  Military items disguised as ordinary goods seem easily able to evade detection thanks to inconsistent inspection by border guards, bribery, false declarations, and North Korean firms based in China that actually belong to military-run trading companies.  Since these practices are surely well known to the Chinese authorities, it seems fair to assume they have no strong interest in preventing or at least substantially reducing it—something they could accomplish with a more intensive border inspection process.  That China is not doing so no doubt reflects its oft-stated position that the North Korean nuclear issue is the result of other countries’ policies, not China’s, hence that resolving it is others’ responsibility, mainly the US.

This is not to say that China is refusing to follow the UNSC’s latest resolution (UNSCR 2270).  Beijing’s criticism of North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests has become increasingly harsh and open over the last few years, and voting to approve UN sanctions is one way to underscore its criticism.  Reports indicate, for example, that China has closed its ports to North Korean coal and iron ore exports.  But the Chinese have created a large loophole.  At their insistence, 2270 allows for humanitarian trade affecting people’s “livelihood.”  Thus, as China’s foreign ministry spokesperson said on March 4, “We will earnestly observe the UNSCR 2270. The resolution prohibits the DPRK’s export of coal, iron ore and iron, but those that are deemed essential for people’s livelihood and have no connection with the funding of the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs will not be affected.”  As a result, China’s exports to North Korea actually rose about 15 percent in the first three months of 2016 compared with 2015, and Chinese imports rose nearly 11 percent.

These figures come from a Chinese customs official.  They may underplay the actual trade figures, which are said to have been deleted from official PRC trade reports in order to hide the volume and character of the trade.

China is hardly alone when it comes to evading sanctions on North Korea. The DPRK operates numerous entities that do business abroad in illicit goods.  Namibia, Iran, and Russia are usually mentioned in this regard.  Two specialists call these trading entities “North Korea, Inc.”  Their research concludes that “sanctions have actually improved North Korea’s ability to procure components for its nuclear and missile programs.”

The reason is that the trading firms, mainly in China and Hong Kong, have been willing and able to pay a higher price for these goods to middlemen, who in turn are willing to take greater risks to sell.  The writers acknowledge the great difficulty in getting ahead of the curve when it comes to identifying the North Korean firms and finding ways to put them out of business.  In the end, they say, only diplomacy will resolve the problem.

Reflagging and renaming North Korean ships is another common tactic, as is falsely claiming a ship’s destination as (for example) China rather than the DPRK.  For example, an unpublished UN report describes how the North Koreans used a Singapore branch of a Chinese bank to pay for their ships to transport weapons through the Panama Canal.  Then there is the story of a British banker who, according to the Panama Papers, set up a front company in Pyongyang, registered in the British Virgin Islands, to sell and procure arms.

North Korea’s military program also benefits from the fine line that often exists between civilian and military items.  Commercial trucks, for example, can be used to mount a variety of weapons.  A Chinese-made truck used in both China and North Korea for mining operations has reportedly been adapted by the North Korean military for its new mobile rocket-propelled artillery system.  Six mobile intercontinental missiles (possibly fakes or mock-ups) paraded in Pyongyang in April 2012 likewise were mounted on Chinese-made trucks.

When all is said and done, the most likely scenario is that the new round of sanctions will produce no better results than previous rounds.  This is so not only because North Korea has many ways to procure items needed for its military purposes, and plenty of willing private sellers.  China, as North Korea’s principal trade partner for many years, is not going to watch the North disintegrate in spite of Beijing’s discomfort over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.  China’s leaders will do more than previously to enforce sanctions, such as inspection of cargo bound for and incoming from North Korea; but they will do a good deal less than the US wants, especially when it comes to border inspections.  For just as President Obama has hawkish advisers who want to turn the screws on North Korea even tighter in hopes of regime change, President Xi has people around him who think resisting US pressure is strategically more important to China than undermining Kim Jong-un.  Secretary of State John Kerry may well say that China’s approach “has not worked, and we cannot continue business as usual.”  But the Chinese have a perfectly good comeback, namely, that Washington and Pyongyang must find a way back to the negotiating table.

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Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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