The U.S. campaign to hammer North Korean sanctions-busters is turning into an international game of whack-a-mole.
Even as the United States spearheads efforts to strangle North Korea’s economy, Pyongyang is proving adept at evading one of the world’s most extensive sanctions regimes and raising sufficient illicit funds to bankroll a nuclear weapons program, according to U.N. experts.
“[A]s the sanctions regime expands, so does the scope of evasion,” noted a recent report by a U.N. panel of experts monitoring enforcement of U.N. sanctions against North Korea, which is formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK. “Lax enforcement of the sanctions regime coupled with the DPRK’s evolving evasion techniques [is] undermining the goals of the resolutions that the DPRK abandon all WMD [weapons of mass destruction].”
The contest to contain North Korea has developed into an international game of whack-a-mole, with Pyongyang popping up with new money-making ventures for every enterprise shut down as a result of U.S. and U.N. sanctions. At a time when key states, including China, have stepped up sanctions enforcement — curbing imports of North Korean coal and reducing the size of diplomatic staff and bank accounts in their countries — Pyongyang has found ways to circumvent those measures.
“The actual implementation of the sanctions lags far behind what is necessary to achieve the core goal of denuclearization,” according to the leaked 109-page U.N. report that was supposed to be confidential. The report, which frets that North Korea’s “pursuit of nuclear and ballistic missile programs appears likely to continue at a rapid pace,” was temporarily posted on a Ukrainian government website.
A senior Ukrainian official told Foreign Policy that the report was published as the result of a “technical error” and that it has since been removed from the site. FP is posting a copy of the report.
Since China suspended in February the import of North Korean coal, which brings in more than $400 million in yearly revenue for Kim Jong Un’s regime, Pyongyang began “rerouting coal to other Member States including Malaysia and Vietnam,” according to the report.
Officials in Pyongyang meanwhile are finding willing customers in Africa, where North Korea sell arms and communications systems and trains elite local security forces. They also have marked inroads in the Middle East, where North Korea has stepped up cooperation on chemical weapons and missile technology with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The U.N. panel is currently investigating “reported prohibited chemical, ballistic missile and conventional arms cooperation between Syria and the DPRK.” Those activities include joint work on Syria’s Scud missile program and the “maintenance and repair of Syrian surface-to-air missiles (SAM) air defence systems.”
The panel is also looking into reports that representatives of the sanctioned government-controlled Korea Mining Development Trading Corp. were supplying goods to front companies for Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center, which has served as the nerve center of the Assad dynasty’s chemical weapons program for decades.
The U.N. panel is carrying out a series of investigations into allegations that African governments, including Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Uganda, have hired North Korean military experts to train their police, military, and presidential guard units in violation of U.N. sanctions. The panel is also probing reports that North Korean experts are upgrading air defense systems and surface-to-air missile systems for Mozambique and Tanzania.
Even as U.N. officials warn that North Korea has become adept at dodging sanctions, White House officials say they remain committed to ratcheting up restrictions on North Korea. “We are going to continue a strategy of maximizing the world’s pressure on North Korea,” said a senior administration official, briefing reporters on Thursday on the condition of anonymity.
The administration believes the international community still has not matched the intensity of recent sanctions against Iran and Iraq, implying that American diplomats still have some leverage against the North short of military action. “There is a long way yet to go,” the official said.
“We are not doing sanctions for the sake of sanctions,” the official added. “We are doing them because they are a peaceful tool to bring about the denuclearization of the peninsula.”
The release of the panel’s findings coincides with a mounting standoff between the regime in Pyongyang, which recently tested a powerful nuclear explosive, and U.S. President Donald Trump, who has threatened to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea. Speaking outside the White House on Sunday, Defense Secretary James Mattis warned that any attack against the United States could result in the “total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea,” though he said the government hoped to avoid such an outcome.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is meanwhile mounting a fresh effort to secure U.N. support for a resolution that would permit U.S. warships to forcibly board and seize North Korean vessels that are in violation of U.N. sanctions. A U.S. draft resolution, which was obtained by FP, would also ban all North Korean exports of oil, natural gas, and textiles and impose sweeping travel and financial sanctions on Kim, his government, and the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.
During an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Monday, Haley acknowledged that the strategy of incrementally ratcheting up pressure has failed to curtail North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. She said the United States will also scrutinize the conduct of countries that do business with Pyongyang, charging that they are “giving aid to their reckless and dangerous nuclear intentions.”
Just last month, Haley negotiated the passage of a resolution that banned exports of coal and seafood to punish North Korea for launching two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in July. But that measure has done nothing to change the country’s conduct.
“Despite our efforts over the past 24 years, the North Korean nuclear program is more advanced and more dangerous than ever,” Haley said. “They now fire missiles over Japanese airspace. They now have ICBM capabilities. They now claim to have tested a hydrogen bomb.”
In a phone call last week that followed a North Korean missile launch that passed over Japan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that it would be “counterproductive and dangerous” to impose new sanctions. Russian leader Vladimir Putin also said his government firmly opposed the imposition of an oil embargo on North Korea. “We should not act out of emotions and push North Korea into a dead end,” Putin said, according to South Korean reporters cited by the New York Times.
Chinese and Russian officials have floated proposals that the United States and South Korea freeze military actions in exchange for a halt to North Korean missile and nuclear tests. The administration official dismissed that argument on Thursday. “We’re just not going to do that,” he said.
In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Ri Jong Ho, a North Korean defector who helped his government evade sanctions, said the sanctions never inflicted “pain or hurt” on the regime and North Korea’s Chinese business partners paid little heed to sanctions. “When the Chinese government tells them to stop, then they stop for a few days and start again,” he said.
William Newcomb, a former member of the U.N. panel of experts for North Korea, said he had doubts that China and Russia would ultimately approve a broad set of sanctions blocking North Korean fuel imports. But he believes the sanctions, however porous, have “driven up the costs” of pursuing nuclear weapons.
“I think they are having a damaging effect on the economy, even though we all know evasion is still occurring,” Newcomb said. “But the pace of developments in the missile and nuclear program suggests that the U.N. got there with too little, too late.”
–Staff writer Elias Groll contributed reporting to this article.
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