On December 22, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea in response to Pyongyang’s November 29 launch of a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Hwasong-15. On paper, resolution 2397 aims to limit Pyongyang’s access to key sources of energy and foreign currency earnings in order to force it back to the negotiating table. Yet, once again, the intent of the resolution confronts a truculent and messy reality.
The resolution seeks to ban 89 percent of refined petroleum exports to North Korea, capping them at 500,000 barrels annually, down from the 2 million barrel cap imposed by a previous UNSC resolution in September. It also caps crude oil supplies at 4 million barrels a year, with the potential for further reductions if Pyongyang conducts another nuclear or missile test. Furthermore, the resolution bans exports to North Korea of industrial equipment, machinery, transport vehicles, and industrial metals and subjects 15 North Koreans and the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces to a travel ban and global asset freeze.
In addition, the resolution requires all UN member states to expel North Korean workers within 24 months. Pyongyang sends at least 60,000 (with the United States estimating as many as 93,000) workers abroad to 20 different countries, with roughly 50,000 of them in Russia and China combined. It is widely held that Pyongyang takes a large cut of the workers’ income in order to fill its coffers, which analysts say amounts to anywhere from $200 million to $2 billion a year for the North Korean government. The resolution targets another source of much needed revenue by seeking to ban Pyongyang’s own exports of food products, machinery, electrical equipment, wood, vessels, ores, and minerals, such as magnesite and magnesia. Lastly, it seeks to allow member states to seize, inspect, and freeze in their ports or waters those vessels suspected of transporting banned goods to or from North Korea.
However, too much should not be made of the apparent unanimity behind the resolution. To begin with, the Trump administration reportedly wanted all North Koreans working abroad to be expelled within 12 months, which the Russians and Chinese opposed and had expanded to 24. The United States also sought a total ban on oil imports, but due to “considerable maneuvering and wrangling” and ultimately a compromise with Beijing, settled for the aforementioned restrictions. Similar to Beijing’s position, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov said Moscow was not prepared to support sanctions that strangled the country economically. The compromise also included downgrading the interdiction of North Korean vessels in international waters from an “obligation” to a step taken at the “discretion of member states.” Further, both Moscow and Beijing stressed that the focus should be on negotiations rather than sanctions, and called on all parties to exercise restraint, aiming their remarks as much at Washington D.C. as Pyongyang.
There also remains a potentially significant gap between the resolution’s aims and how strenuously sanctions will be imposed in practice. Again, as the jockeying between Beijing and Washington D.C. indicates, China is loathe to press too hard on its North Korean neighbor. As Peter Ward, columnist for NK News, told Reuters, if enforced the “cap on oil would be devastating for North Korea’s haulage industry, for North Koreans who use generators at home or for productive activities, and for (state-owned) enterprises that do the same.” This helps explain why China often works around enforcement. Indeed, on Tuesday, the South Korean foreign ministry said the UNSC’s sanctions committee was reviewing reports that China and North Korea had engaged in illegal trading of oil by sea on roughly 30 occasions since October, in direct violation of previous UNSC resolutions to which Beijing was a signatory. One source close to the UNSC’s Panel of Experts on North Korea told me that panel members were damning about enforcement, saying China is talking a good game but still basically doing nothing.
Pyongyang itself responded as expected. It called the new resolution “an act of war” and infringement of North Korean sovereignty, and vowed to further consolidate its “self-defensive” nuclear deterrent force. Senior advisor for the International Crisis Group (ICG), Chris Green, said in an email message that Pyongyang’s condemnation “was calibrated to the average vitriol level,” but because it came in the form of a foreign ministry statement (not from Kim Jong-un himself), it was “an indicator, albeit a weak one, that the North is retaining room for maneuver.”
Green continued: “The latest resolution was not a game-changer…res. 2397 does not do much more than build on previous resolutions, all with one eye on the future; namely, the expectation, more or less telegraphed by one DPRK official since September, that a 7th nuclear test is likely, and the UNSC will have to respond.”
“However,” Green added, “in hinting that crude oil could become a target of later resolutions, 2397 is sending (or is meant to send) a stark message” to Pyongyang. Since the resolution was issued in December, Green contends it may not be in Pyongyang’s domestic political interest to conduct another nuclear test between now and February (even assuming the technical feasibility in the frigid North Korean winter). Although another missile test may occur, we “will need to wait for the January 1 New Year statement from [Kim Jong-un] to see the evolution of [North Korean] thinking,” he said.
In short, despite recent developments, we are witnessing a sort of holding pattern. Nevertheless, there is a troublesome contradiction inherent within recent moves. As John Park, director of the Korea Working Group at the Harvard Kennedy School, told Reuters, sanctions could take years to have their full impact, whereas Pyongyang is making rapid progress in its weapons program. If the plan “is to use sanctions as the last non-military policy tool to induce North Korea’s return to the denuclearization table, we may quickly find Washington prioritizing military options,” Park said.
This leaves Seoul stuck precariously amidst a gathering storm. On the one hand, it welcomes the sanctions, calls on Pyongyang to cease its provocations, and has launched a new special team within the South Korean Ministry of National Defense to more effectively deter and respond to Pyongyang’s threats. On the other hand, it continues to push for dialogue, seeks Pyongyang’s involvement in the coming Winter Olympics, floats the idea of cancelling or suspending annual U.S.-ROK military exercises, and tries to restrain the mounting calls for military action emanating from Washington D.C.