Recently the UN Security Council adopted a resolution that expanded the list of sanctions against North Korea. Members of the Council banned the export of coal, iron ore, gold, titanium, vanadium and rare earth minerals (which provide the DPRK its main source of revenue), along with prohibiting the import of aviation fuel in North Korea. The list of banned luxury goods was expanded to include snowmobiles and watches, while an arms embargo now includes small arms which haven’t been banned previously.
“In order to ensure that no items are going to be smuggled in violation of the resolution” the Security Council allowed the inspection of any cargo being transported from the DPRK without any preconditions or time limits.
What’s even worse for the DPRK, all funds and other financial assets outside of North Korea owned by the Korean Workers’ Party are going to be seized or frozen. This condition also applies to the foreign branches of North Korean banks.
If we are to compare this UN version of new sanctions with those that had been adopted by the US previously, it becomes clear that they largely remain unchanged. The most delusional things, such as ban on the supply of energy resources to the North, or prohibition of labor exports were condemned by China, then Russia forced to Council to change a number of details.
However, even with the way these new sanctions have been adopted, it’s getting much closer to a full scale blockade than the actions designed to prevent the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
The discussion of the resolution usually comes down to two questions: “why have Russia and China shown solidarity with the US position?” and “what is going to happen next?” Those have already been discussed before. As members of the UN Security Council and the main beneficiaries of the nonproliferation regime, Moscow and Beijing will be forced to condemn the actions of any country, that is, regardless of its motives (the United States does not even take those into account), systematically violating UN resolutions and stubbornly pushing for the expansion of the nuclear club. In the case of China, we may well be witnessing a reaction to the fact that Pyongyang ignored the demands its neighbor was making to cancel the missile launch tests which even included sending a special diplomatic mission to the DPRK.
It is no secret that China’s position on the Korean question is affected by two major trends. First is the desire to talk some reason into the frustratingly headstrong government of the DPRK. Second is the continuous attempts to avoid a confrontation with the US over North Korea. However, Washington understands this perfectly clear and, in turn, raises the stakes continuously in an attempt to drive China into a corner. Will China confront the United States for such a relatively small country as North Korea, or it will be forced to demonstrate its solidarity with the UN Security Council on this matter? The answer is obvious, even though the date of the discussions on the resolution was postponed several times, Beijing was forced to back down. Chinese diplomats have repeatedly reminded the Council that sanctions should not affect the population of the DPRK.
As for the consequences, neither side found itself in the mood to search for a compromise. In an interview with the Russian newspaper “Labour,” the Chinese Ambassador to Russia has labeled the sanctions “a primitive and sinister form of international politics.” North Korea conducted military exercises along with test launches of short-range missiles, while Kim Jong-un ordered that the nuclear arsenals of the country be made battle-capable at all times. Russian and Western media sources have traditionally responded to these steps with loud groans even though North Korea has ever right to conduct military games. For instance, South Korea conducts large-scale military exercises at least ten times a year, with some of those even mimicking the full-scale invasion of the DPRK. For instance, such exercises are going to be conducted in the South within the next month.
Therefore, the probability of new “North Korean provocations” has increased tenfold. To be specific, these “provocations” are incidents of unknown origin, the blame for which will be placed upon North Korea.
It’s curious that China is going to benefit from this whole situation. It controls 70% of DPRK’s trade turnover and shares the longest land border with it. This means that the severity of the sanctions can and will be compensated by the way they are going to be implemented. Here, China gets serious influential leverage: it can obey the UN resolution to the letter, therefore slowly suffocating Pyongyang, or it can turn a blind eye to some facts but this will be a favor that must be returned eventually in the future.
However, there’s certain forces in China that do not and will not agree with the sanctions. As it has been pointed out by the director of the International Relations Institute of Jilin University, it’s highly unlikely that such measures will force Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. Instead, it will provoke even more anger within the DPRK. Those sanctions have not simply jeopardized China’s interests, the director argues, it can also undermine the defense capability of the DPRK, which, along with the neutral position taken by China, can draw in the United States to consider a military solution to the Korean problem. There’s little doubt that should the DPRK be abandoned, the US will resort to regime change and military intervention. Meanwhile, the absorption of the North would put an end to the balance on the Korean peninsula and will inevitably put an end to the gradual rapprochement between China and South Korea.
Let’s hope that both sides of the Korean face-off will abstain from new demonstrations and the tactics of “disproportionate response to provocation,” since in today’s realities a new Korean war can start inadvertently because of irrational factors that nobody could foresee.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.