21.09.2017 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Even After Sanctions, North Korea has a Lot to Cheer About

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Politics of sanctions is not known to have been an effective source of bringing about political change. This is particularly evident from the way Iran has thwarted the US and EU sanctions in the last decade or so, and this is even more particualr from the way North Kores has been thwarting, notwithstanding the role that the sanctioned countries’ allies play, the US over its nuclear programme. North Korea has a well-established nuclear infrastructure, and there is seemingly nothing in the air that the country might be tempted to role it back. Nor does the US have any option other than that of imposing sanctions to hurt North Korea directly and its allies indirectly. Still, the US imposed sanctions and even those imposed by the UNSC seem to have done little to ‘convince’ North Korea of the necessity of rolling back its nuclear programme. On the other hand, the UNSC imposed fresh sanctions, their dynamics and divergent international political interests involved have once again proved that North Korea has little to worry about. Nothing perhaps could better explain this than fresh North Korean missile tests, and the fact that both China and Russia continue to oppose, despite pressure from the US, any move against North Korea that may trigger a regime change scenario, or allow the use of military force.

Notwithstanding the fact that fresh sanctions are harsh compared to the previous ones, this round of sanctions is still far from what the US president, Donald Trump, had been hoping for since the beginning of his presidency. What the US had hoped for included, apart from a complete oil embargo, an asset freeze and travel ban on Kim Jong-un and other specifically designated North Korean officials. The draft resolution also covered additional WMD-related items as well as a provision for regular inspection of North Korean vessels in international waters. While the scenario thus built does not prevent either China or Russia from applying political and diplomatic pressure, as North Korea will still be facing 30% reduction on its crude and refined oil imports, Russia-China duo has also drawn the line, which can be crossed only at the expense of triggering a major international crisis. In nutshell, both Russia and China have limited themselves to a measured application of diplomatic pressure, which explicitly includes, apart from other things, stability in Pyongyang, no regime change, no drastic alteration of the geopolitical chessboard and no massive refugee crisis.

Within this seemingly agreed framework of action, there is little to no scope for the US and its allies in the region to manufacture a scenario whereby the North Korean regime can be overthrown. Let’s not also forget here that the Sino-Russia duo was forced to make this aspect clear because of Nikki Haley’s remark that the US would act alone if Kim’s regime didn’t stop testing missiles and bombs. These remarks were followed by Chinese foreign ministry’s statement that said that “The peninsula issue must be resolved peacefully. The military solution has no way out. China will not allow conflict or war on the peninsula.”  Already, Russia’s Vladimir Putin had warned that a “cutting off the oil supply to North Korea may harm people in hospitals or other ordinary citizens.”

With two of the most important aspects of the US policy vis-à-vis North Korea thus getting rejected, the passage of UNSC resolution and imposition of sanctions hardly reflect the power that the US claims to have as a global power. On the contrary, the fact that the US had to reframe its resolution due to opposition from both China and Russia does strongly reflect the influence this duo has come to enjoy in the international arena.

In simple words, sanctions imposed through a unanimously imposed resolution of the UNSC do none of the originally drafted resolution by the US representative Nikki Haley. This failure has been followed by a ‘warning’ from President Trump, who threated to impose sanctions on Chinese banks if they didn’t follow the UNSC sanctions. However, this step, if ever taken, will only make matters worse for the US. Qualitatively speaking, sanctions of Chinese banks will allow the North Korean issue to quietly slip to the background and create a new global tussle. The Chinese are aware of this seeming eventuality and are already preparing to counter it. According to some reports, China is expected shortly to launch a crude oil futures contract priced in yuan and convertible into gold in what analysts say could be a game-changer for the industry. This framework would allow the US sanctioned countries, such as Russia and Iran, to circumvent US sanctions by trading in yuan. While this programme is part of China’s attempts to reduce the dominance the US dollar enjoys in the commodities market, it also signifies that by opening deals in Yuan, China is moving towards creating a separate economic space, which cannot be hit by US sanctions.

While this move will certainly trigger a sort of ‘trade-war’ between the US and China, in the long run it will turn out to be the central most piece of multipolar world China as well as Russia have been trying to build as it will allow them to follow more independent policy paths vis-à-vis issues such as North Korean nuclear crisis.

That Russia and China are not going to allow the US to pursue its hegemonic impulses against North Korea is also evident from the way Russia is moving towards integration rather than isolation and ultimate overthrow of North Korean regime. In Vladivostok, Russia’ Putin went out of his way to defuse military tension and warn that stepping beyond sanctions would be an “invitation to the graveyard.” Instead, he proposed integration through business. Putin’s plan found its manifestation through a trilateral trade platform, crucially involving Pyongyang, Seoul and Moscow, to ultimately invest in connectivity between the whole Korean peninsula and the Russian Far East.

While a North Korean delegation was present in Vladivostok and expressed its broader agreement on the connectivity programme, what certainly becomes clear is that Russian and Chinese policy vis-à-vis Korea is fundamentally different from that of the US. And, therein lies a point of relief and a point to reflect on for North Korea on the possibility of fighting sanctions through integration in the Russia-China led Eurasian connectivity.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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