The Multilateralist

Tracking North Korea sanctions

When the U.N. Security Council passes sanctions, the world takes notice. But once these measures are adopted, they often pass into the bureaucratic abyss, becoming the province of special committees and panels of experts whose work generally receives scant attention. Working behind the scenes, states not enthusiastic about the sanctions in question can gum up ...

When the U.N. Security Council passes sanctions, the world takes notice. But once these measures are adopted, they often pass into the bureaucratic abyss, becoming the province of special committees and panels of experts whose work generally receives scant attention. Working behind the scenes, states not enthusiastic about the sanctions in question can gum up the works by delaying committee meetings, moving slowly on appointing experts, or simply preventing consensus on whether there have been violations or how to respond to them.

Intent on following up on the U.N.’s North Korea sanctions, the latest round of which were passed in June 2009, Sen. Richard Lugar requested a report card from the Congressional Research Service. It was delivered recently (and, unlike many CRS products, released publicly via Lugar’s website). The report is chock full of interesting analysis and data and paints a complicated picture on compliance and enforcement.

It notes that the United States approach to implementing sanctions — and aggressively monitoring other countries’ implementation — has varied considerably as optimism about diplomatic openings has waxed and waned. "A number of administration officials agreed… that the intensity with which they push for tough implementation of sanctions, at least in public, has been and likely will continue to be calibrated depending on whether there are positive developments or setbacks in diplomacy with North Korea." This is an important point, and it suggests that the carrot-and-stick game between Washington and Pyongyang that preceded adoption of sanctions continues in a more muted form: The administration downplays sanctions when there’s diplomatic progress, but when these avenues appear blocked, the United States beats the drum about sanctions implementation.

The report makes clear that China has almost zero interest in enforcing important elements of the sanctions regime, particularly measures directed at stopping the flow of luxury goods into North Korea, a measure designed to inflict pain on the regime’s ruling elite. "While China officially has supported UNSCR 1874," the report concludes, "it appears to be concerned primarily with the sanctions related to the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs but not the economic and financial sanctions targeted at the higher echelons of North Korean society."

It’s also clear from the analysis that the U.N. panel of experts assigned to monitor implementation of the sanctions has helped considerably to energize a sanctions regime that could easily have become impotent. Its reports have offered innovative suggestions for better enforcement, identified key gaps in sanctions coverage (including air cargo), and encouraged states to comply fully with their reporting requirements (most countries have not). The work of the expert panel is noteworthy, and it makes the continued delay in appointing a similar committee to monitor Iran sanctions frustrating. The latest word I’ve had from New York is that the experts have been approved by the sanctions committee but have still not been formally appointed. All signs point to them beginning their work around Thanksgiving, nearly six months after the sanctions passed. 

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