UN Passes One More Sanctions Resolution Against North Korea

Watered-down resolution kicks can down the road.

The United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2375 (2017) on Monday, which is intended to place further economic pressure on the North Korean regime in response to its recent testing of its most powerful nuclear bomb to date. However, in order to achieve consensus on the Security Council and avoid a veto by China and/or Russia, the Trump administration agreed to a drastically watered down version compared to its original draft.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who last week criticized the kind of incrementalism that Resolution 2375 embodies, praised the unanimous adoption of the compromise resolution by the Security Council. “Today, we are saying the world will never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea. And today, the Security Council is saying that if the North Korean regime does not halt its nuclear program, we will act to stop it ourselves,” she declared. “We are done trying to prod the regime to do the right thing. We are now acting to stop it from having the ability to continue doing the wrong thing. We are doing that by hitting North Korea’s ability to fuel and fund its weapons program.”

Ambassador Haley could not bring herself to admit that the new resolution does not accomplish anywhere near what the Trump administration had originally sought to push through the Security Council. 

The United States had originally sought to ban the export to North Korea of all crude oil and refined petroleum products. The compromise resolution adopted by the Security Council essentially maintains the status quo on crude oil exports to North Korea. It bans UN member states from providing additional crude oil in excess of the amount supplied, sold or transferred by such member states in the 12-month period prior to the adoption of Resolution 2375. It also imposes an annual cap of 2 million barrels per year of all refined petroleum products (gasoline, diesel, heavy fuel oil, etc.). 

North Korea currently receives a total of about 8.5 million barrels of oil/petroleum: 4.5 million in refined form and 4 million in crude form. Thus, according to the U.S. Mission to the UN, the net effect of the new resolution is to reduce “about 30% of all oil provided to North Korea by cutting off over 55% of refined petroleum products going to North Korea.” That is a far cry from the total oil embargo the Trump administration originally demanded. To its credit, however, the resolution does prevent North Korea from obtaining substitutes for refined petroleum products by banning the supply to North Korea of all natural gas and condensates. 

The U.S.'s original version would have permitted interdictions and inspections of vessels on the high seas carrying prohibited cargo, authorizing the use of force if necessary to overcome resistance to the inspections. The watered down resolution stripped away authorization of the use of force in favor of reporting the recalcitrant ships to a UN sanctions committee for possible disciplinary action such as designation for an asset freeze, denial of port access, de-registration, and other possible penalties. However, the damage from the smuggling of prohibited products to and from North Korea will have already been done.

The new resolution also does not single out North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, for a travel ban or asset freeze as the original U.S. draft had done. 

Nevertheless, the new resolution does ratchet up economic pressure significantly in three other areas. It bans all North Korean textile exports. Textile exports – North Korea’s largest economic sector that the Security Council had not previously restricted – has earned North Korea nearly $800 million each year. Thus, combined with the previous Security Council resolutions, “over 90% of North Korea’s publicly reported 2016 exports of $2.7 billion are now banned including coal, textiles, iron, and seafood,” according to the U.S. Mission to the UN.

Moreover, while the new resolution leaves existing contracts and work authorizations involving North Korean overseas workers alone until their expiration, it does not permit any renewals unless an exception is granted on a case by case basis by a committee established by the Security Council. As a result, the North Korean regime ultimately will be deprived of “another half billion dollars each year it takes from the nearly 100,000 North Korean citizens working around the world to earn wages,” according to the U.S. Mission to the UN.

Finally, the new resolution requires the end of all joint ventures with North Korea, which will prevent technology transfers useful to North Korea’s military industrial complex. There are exemptions, however, that China and Russia no doubt insisted upon as the price for their votes in favor of the resolution - China-North Korea hydroelectric power stations on the Yalu River and the Russia-North Korea Khasan-Rajin rail and port project to enable transshipment of Russian coal to other markets.

Both Russia and China condemned North Korea’s most recent nuclear weapons test in remarks their ambassadors delivered to the Security Council following the vote. For that reason, the ambassadors expressed support for the latest sanctions resolution. Both ambassadors also reiterated their call for a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests in exchange for a freeze on major joint military drills by South Korea and the United States. The Trump administration considers this mutual freeze proposal to be a non-starter. The Chinese and Russian ambassadors emphasized the need to focus on a negotiated political solution through dialogue, with the ultimate objective of de-nuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and stabilizing the peninsula. Although North Korea considers any proposal requiring it to de-nuclearize a non-starter and the Trump administration has signaled that it is not ready to engage in direct talks with North Korea, the new resolution makes specific reference to resolving the crisis “through peaceful, diplomatic and political means” and calls for resumption of the six party talks. 

To make clear the limits they demand on exerting further pressure upon North Korea, the Chinese and Russian ambassadors warned against “regime change,” the use of military force above the 38th parallel, accelerated efforts to reunify the two Koreas, or any action to bring about the collapse of the North Korean regime. Both countries evidently view a complete oil embargo or authorizing the use of force to interdict and inspect ships headed to or from North Korea as crossing their red lines. Thus, these enhanced measures were removed from the final version of Resolution 2375.

Several Security Council members emphasized the importance of showing complete unity on the Council in responding to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests. However, the price of such unity is a watered down resolution, which will likely do little to change North Korea’s behavior even if North Korea did decide to postpone temporarily the missile test it had reportedly been preparing. Russia and China demonstrated their willingness to go along with another incremental step up of sanctions in a resolution that lacks any meaningful enforcement mechanisms. There is no way to reliably verify the amount of oil that passes through China's Dandong-Sinuiju pipeline, for example. Smuggling will continue, with Iran a likely candidate for supplying some oil to North Korea and receiving missile parts and other nuclear-related equipment in exchange for hard currency. North Korean textile products can be easily re-labeled to conceal their source. Thus, the Security Council resolution is likely to have little economic impact that would seriously slow down North Korea’s already advanced nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. 

If, as expected, North Korea conducts another missile or nuclear test, China and Russia will be in a position to point to it as further proof that sanctions are useless in deterring North Korea. They will continue to resist anything approaching the complete oil embargo and use of force to interdict and inspect ships suspected of carrying prohibited cargo, which were contained in the Trump administration’s original draft resolution. As already previewed in their remarks to the Security Council following the adoption of Resolution 2375, they will almost certainly claim that such measures could drastically increase the suffering of the Korean people as a harsh winter approaches and even provoke an all out war. 

In short, Security Council Resolution 2375 continues to kick the can down the road. Nothing the UN has done or may do in the future will help “take the future of the North Korean nuclear program out of the hands of its outlaw regime,” as Ambassador Haley would like to see happen in the Security Council. Instead, as Ambassador Haley has said on other occasions, the United States may have to take matters into its own hands.