After U.S. compromise, Security Council strengthens North Korea sanctions

Weakened penalties reflect power of Russia, China
South Korean F-15K fighter jets and American F-35B stealth jet fighters fly over South Korea during a joint military drill.
South Korean F-15K fighter jets and American F-35B stealth jet fighters fly over South Korea during a joint military drill.

UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. Security Council on Monday ratcheted up sanctions yet again against North Korea, but they fell significantly short of the far-reaching penalties that the Trump administration had demanded just days ago.

Moreover, it remained wholly unclear whether the additional penalties would persuade North Korea to halt its nuclear and ballistic missile tests — the latest just last week, when it detonated its sixth and most powerful nuclear device. North Korea claimed that detonation, in an underground site, had been from a hydrogen bomb.

Although the resolution won backing from all 15 council members, the weakened penalties reflected the power of Russia and China, which had objected to the original language and could have used their votes to veto the measure.

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki R. Haley, reacted to the bomb test last week by calling for the fullest range of international sanctions, including a cutoff of all oil supplies, in a new Security Council resolution.

Those demands were toned down in negotiations that followed with her Russian and Chinese counterparts. Late Sunday, after a series of closed-door meetings, a revised draft emerged, setting a cap on oil exports to North Korea, but not blocking them altogether.

The resolution asks countries around the world to inspect ships going in and out of North Korea’s ports (a provision put in place by the Security Council in 2009) but does not authorize the use of force for ships that do not comply, as the Trump administration had originally proposed. The resolution also requires those inspections to be done with the consent of the countries where the ships are registered, which opens the door to violations. Under the latest resolution, those ships could face penalties, but the original language proposed by the United States went much further, empowering countries to interdict ships suspected of carrying weapons material or fuel into North Korea and to use “all necessary measures” — diplomatic code for the deployment of military force — to enforce compliance.

Nor does the resolution impose a travel ban or asset freeze on the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, as the original U.S. draft had set out. And the new measure adds a caveat to the original language that would have banned the import of North Korean laborers altogether, saying that countries should not provide work authorization papers unless necessary for humanitarian assistance or denuclearization. The weakened language was a nod to Russia, a big user of imported North Korean labor.

The new draft does ban textile exports from North Korea, prohibits the sale of natural gas to North Korea and sets a cap on refined petroleum sales to the country of two million barrels per year. That would shave off roughly 10 percent of what North Korea currently gets from China, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.

China had long worried that an oil cutoff altogether would lead to North Korea’s collapse.

And even some British officials warned, in private, that if the original U.S. proposal went forward, this winter the North Koreans would be showing photographs of freezing children, and portraying the West as architects of a genocide.

A recent analysis by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies suggested that an oil embargo would not have much impact in the long run anyway; Pyongyang, the analysis said, could replace oil with liquefied coal.

Despite the weakened penalties, Haley cast the resolution as a victory in her Security Council remarks.

Haley credited what she called President Donald Trump’s relationship with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in achieving the toughened sanctions — the second raft of U.N. penalties against North Korea since August. The two leaders spoke by phone last week about how to contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

Haley said the resolution demonstrated international unity against the regime in Pyongyang, and she claimed that the new sanctions, if enforced, would affect the vast majority of the country’s exports.

But in contrast to her assertion last week that the North was “begging for war,” Haley said Monday that Pyongyang still has room to change course.

“If it agrees to stop its nuclear program it can reclaim its future,” she said. “If it proves it can live in peace world will live in peace with it.”

Ultimately, analysts said, diplomatic success would be measured not by the strictness of sanctions, but by the ability of world powers to persuade Pyongyang to halt its nuclear and ballistic missile tests.

“There’s no only-sanctions strategy that will bring the North Koreans to heel,” said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a disarmament advocacy group based in Washington. “It has to be paired with a pragmatic strategy of engagement. But those talks are not yet happening.”

Any Security Council measure needs at least nine out of 15 votes to be adopted, and no vetoes. Both Russia and China, as permanent members, wield veto power.

In a nod to Chinese and Russian arguments, the resolution also calls for resolving the crisis “through peaceful, diplomatic and political means.” That is diplomatic code to engage in negotiations.

In his remarks, the Chinese envoy, Liu Jieyi, warned the United States against efforts at “regime change” and the use of military force.

“China will continue to advance dialogue,” he said.

China and Russia have jointly proposed a freeze on Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear tests in exchange for a freeze in joint military drills by South Korea and the United States. The Americans have rejected that proposal.

Russia’s envoy, Vassily A. Nebenzia, said it would be “a big mistake” to ignore the China-Russia proposal. “We will insist on it being considered,” he said.

Diplomats said the language in the new resolution, which was negotiated surprisingly swiftly after the North’s latest nuclear test, reflected a tough but balanced measure designed to address Chinese and Russian concerns.

French Ambassador François Delattre, told reporters that a unified Security Council position was “the best antidote to the risk of war.”

“By definition, this is a compromise in order to get everyone on board,” he said before the vote.

“Everyone should be able to live with the resolution as it now stands,” said the Swedish ambassador, Olof Skoog.

There was no immediate reaction to the new resolution from North Korea. But on Sunday the North warned that it would inflict the “greatest pain and suffering” on the United States, in the event of tougher international sanctions.

U.S. intelligence agencies say they are expecting North Korea to test another intercontinental ballistic missile, building on two tests in July. But the new test, they speculate, will not be into a high launch into space, but will be flattened out to demonstrate how far the missile can fly.

Kim has said he would consider landing test missiles off the shore of Guam, the Pacific island where a U.S. air base is used to fly practice bombing runs over the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone with the North.

In reality, the Trump administration has relatively low expectations for the new sanctions, U.S. officials say.

But it is discussing how to use them, the officials say, with a mix of overt military pressure, covert action, and steps to punish any Chinese banks that do business with North Korea, by banning them from also doing business with the United States.

That is exactly the combination of actions that was used by the Obama administration to drive Iran into negotiations over its nuclear activities for what became the 2015 deal that Trump has often denounced as a giveaway.

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