The United Nations has been piling on sanctions against North Korea in an attempt to get the country to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. But Reuters reported Thursday that Russia helped Japan import coal shipments from North Korea, in what appears to be a flagrant violation of the sanctions regime imposed by the U.N. Security Council.
Russia, which is a permanent member of the council and repeatedly votes in favor of passing the sanctions, denied being a transit point for North Korean coal and insists that it is abiding by international law. But both Russian President Valdimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have spoken about the futility of sanctions, of which there have been five rounds passed since President Donald Trump took office.
European intelligence sources tell Reuters this is only the latest report on such violation.
There were reports in December that Russia was smuggling oil to North Korea, and in December, a report from the Institute for Science and International Security detailed how 49 countries were violating the sanctions.
That includes 13 countries that are engaged in violating military sanctions (weapons trade), and 19 countries engaged in breaking non-military sanctions. Several of these countries — Germany, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, for instance — are U.S. allies.
The question remains: How can the U.N. reign in North Korea if the sanctions it is imposing are not in the best interest of its own members?
Jeong-Ho Roh, director of Center for Korean Legal Studies at Columbia University’s Law School, says it’s possible that some of these countries might not be intentionally circumventing sanctions and that it might be a case of a few players and individuals doing so.
“Having said that, if a system is not in place where the individual countries are unable to control their citizens or ship[ments] then surely that system needs to be revisited in order to make sure that the sanctions work,” said Roh, who feels that sanctions, in addition to other international pressures, could actually work to bring North Korea to the negotiating table.
If, as President Donald Trump put at his speech in Davos on Friday, each country is supposed to look after its own interest, as he claims to be doing with his America First platform, then why should any country forgo its own economic interest in the aim of denuclearizing North Korea?
Japan, for instance, in 2017 announced that it wants to build 45 new coal-powered stations. It imports 95 percent of its energy sources, and in looking after its own interests, clearly doesn’t think that not buying coal from North Korea would encourage the state to abandon its weapons programs.
“That is really the problem — the reluctant countries, who have reluctantly signed on to the sanctions … an example of that would be Russia, China and other countries on that list [of violators] who are less motivated to comply to the letter with the sanctions and look toward what their interests are,” said Roh. “This is not unforeseen and it’s a slippery slope. That really is the problem: Not all countries are on the same wavelength on the need for strong sanctions.”
Theodore Karasik, Project investigator for the Russia in the Middle East Project at the Jamestown Foundation, told ThinkProgress that this is largely about countries like Russia, Iran, and China “pulling away from Western economic norms” and doing their own thing.
“What’s happening is that the Russian government may be voting one way in the U.N. and doing business as usual,” he said, adding that while Russia is indeed, “the linchpin” in this issue, China plays an even bigger role (it is North Korea’s largest trade partner). Neither China nor Russia have shown enthusiasm for isolating North Korea.
This means, he said, that “U.N. sanctions have absolutely no hope of being effective.”