New North Korea sanctions will totally, maybe work

...or perhaps they won't do nearly enough to curb Pyongyang's nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

North Korea said it will make the United States pay a heavy price if a proposal Washington is backing to impose the toughest sanctions ever on Pyongyang is approved by the U.N. Security Council this week. CREDIT: Ahn Young-joon/AP Photo
North Korea said it will make the United States pay a heavy price if a proposal Washington is backing to impose the toughest sanctions ever on Pyongyang is approved by the U.N. Security Council this week. CREDIT: Ahn Young-joon/AP Photo

The U.N. Security Council on Monday night voted in favor of new sanctions against North Korea, proposed by the United States — the closest gambit the Trump administration has to diplomacy when dealing with a state hellbent on developing long-range nuclear missiles.

After North Korea performed its nuclear test, Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, accused the isolated nation of “begging for war” and called for the harshest round of sanctions yet.

The sanctions, which cap the country’s oil imports, ban textile exports, and phase out the use of overseas North Korean labor, were somewhat softened in order to win votes from reluctant China and Russia.

Whether they take effect in time to freeze or slow North Korea’s missile programs is unknown. It’s possible North Korea is either trying to run out the clock on the United States, betting on the unlikelihood of President Donald Trump resorting to the “fire and fury” response he threatened in August.

U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday said the U.S. should be prepared to act alone, in a “supercharged” manner, to put maximum pressure on North Korea.

In a statement laced with urgent wording, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday emphasized working with global and regional partners, but added, “Third parties will not deter us from taking appropriate defensive measures in the face of the DPRK’s [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] growing security challenge.”

But how effective will this round — the ninth round in 11 years — be in slowing down or freezing the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs?

Jeong-Ho Roh, director of Center for Korean Legal Studies at Columbia University’s Law School, said that past sanctions have had an incremental impact on North Korea.

“But clearly, the sanctions have not had the kind of effect that the United States and other countries have wanted. And one of the reasons for that is that the North Korean economy is so primitive in the sense that sanctions would not have the kind of effect that they would have on developed countries,” said Roh.

In a piece published in July, Roh’s colleague, Henri Féron wrote that several economic indicators — including construction boom, trade, and food production — showed that sanctions were not working in North Korea.

Féron considered a number of possibilities to explain the growth — from the state paying below market wages to North Korea simply burning through its reserves. But this stands out:

Meanwhile, trade statistics from the Chinese customs office show that PRC [People’s Republic of China]-DPRK trade went from 0.37 billion USD in 1999 to 5.37 billion USD in 2016. It then reportedly grew by nearly 40 percent in the first quarter of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016, despite the adoption of particularly harsh UN sanctions in 2016 (resolutions 2270 in March and 2321 in November).

Indeed, the extent of Chinese influence in the region makes it difficult for sanctions to be effective. It’s been estimated that China is the target for one-third of North Korea’s exports and between 92 percent of its two-way trade economy.

China also sells North Korea oil and petroleum products — just how much is hard to know, according to Reuters:

China, which supplies most of North Korea’s crude, no longer reports its oil shipments to the country, but according to South Korean data supplies it with roughly 500,000 tonnes of crude oil annually. It also exports over 200,000 tonnes of oil products, according to U.N. data.

The initial draft called for a complete oil ban and freezing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s assets as well as those of the country’s airlines, and although the new sanctions are watered-down, Roh said they send a crucial signal to North Korea: Their passage demonstrates a certain amount of unity between China, Russia, and the U.S. on the potential nuclear threat North Korea might pose.

If, he said, they’d imposed the full oil embargo and frozen Un’s assets, it wouldn’t give China anywhere to go in “trying to change the behavior of North Korea” while letting North Korea know that things could get worse — and not just in an abstract way.

“It puts North Korea on notice that should they continue on this course, that the maximum sanctions initially proposed are still on the table and could invariably be imposed,” said Roh.

Will China and Russia sign off on them?

“That scenario, I don’t see happening. It’s basically the leverage that the U.S. government will still try to exert … but the amount of trade between North Korea and China is just incredible. And the last thing China wants is sort of a collapsed regime,” said Roh.

The area bordering North Korea and China is, he said, populated by ethnic Korean Chinese, and the last thing the Chinese want is “instability which may fester into kind of a second Tibet situation, where the ethnic minority groups begin to say, ‘We don’t want to be part of China any more.'”

He said that the current round of sanctions “has teeth” — but who will those teeth bite?

“Any sanctions you impose on a country like North Korea, the first people to suffer will be the people — it’s a trickle-up kind of scenario,” said Roh. The sanctions, he said, are needed to induce a behavioral change.

“Personally, I don’t think that’s going to happen. They’ve suffered for 50 years, but surely, this round of sanctions … will maybe, perhaps, force North Korea to think again,” he said.