The U.N. Tries to Cut North Korea’s Nuclear Lifeline and Outlaw Snowmobiles

The U.N. Security Council adopts a tough new resolution restricting Pyongyang’s ability to finance its nuclear weapons program.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un salutes as he watches a military parade to mark 100 years since the birth of the country's founder and his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, in Pyongyang on April 15, 2012.  The commemorations came just two days after a satellite launch timed to mark the centenary fizzled out embarrassingly when the rocket apparently exploded within minutes of blastoff and plunged into the sea.    AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones (Photo credit should read Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un salutes as he watches a military parade to mark 100 years since the birth of the country's founder and his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, in Pyongyang on April 15, 2012. The commemorations came just two days after a satellite launch timed to mark the centenary fizzled out embarrassingly when the rocket apparently exploded within minutes of blastoff and plunged into the sea. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones (Photo credit should read Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un salutes as he watches a military parade to mark 100 years since the birth of the country's founder and his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, in Pyongyang on April 15, 2012. The commemorations came just two days after a satellite launch timed to mark the centenary fizzled out embarrassingly when the rocket apparently exploded within minutes of blastoff and plunged into the sea. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones (Photo credit should read Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.N. Security Council hit North Korea with a new round of sanctions tailored to limit Pyongyang’s ability to secure revenues for its nuclear program through more than $1 billion of annual trade in gold, coal, and other ores.

Frustrated by Pyongyang’s persistent defiance of its demands to halt its nuclear program, the 15-nation council unanimously passed a resolution that will strengthen existing sanctions by imposing mandatory inspections of all cargo entering or leaving North Korea, tightening financial restrictions on North Korean entities, and requiring states to expel North Korean diplomats or other agents if they engage in activities banned by the United Nations. The council also slapped a highly symbolic ban on luxury items, prohibiting North Korea from buying luxury watches, recreational sports equipment, leisure boats, and snowmobiles that cost more than $2,000.

The vote marked a rare show of unity by the council’s key powers -- China, Russia, and the United States -- who have been polarized over conflicts from Syria to Ukraine. It also reflected China’s growing irritation with its controversial neighbor, which has repeatedly ignored Beijing’s appeals to restrain its nuclear activities and resume big-power talks aimed at eliminating its atomic weapons program.

The U.N. Security Council hit North Korea with a new round of sanctions tailored to limit Pyongyang’s ability to secure revenues for its nuclear program through more than $1 billion of annual trade in gold, coal, and other ores.

Frustrated by Pyongyang’s persistent defiance of its demands to halt its nuclear program, the 15-nation council unanimously passed a resolution that will strengthen existing sanctions by imposing mandatory inspections of all cargo entering or leaving North Korea, tightening financial restrictions on North Korean entities, and requiring states to expel North Korean diplomats or other agents if they engage in activities banned by the United Nations. The council also slapped a highly symbolic ban on luxury items, prohibiting North Korea from buying luxury watches, recreational sports equipment, leisure boats, and snowmobiles that cost more than $2,000.

The vote marked a rare show of unity by the council’s key powers — China, Russia, and the United States — who have been polarized over conflicts from Syria to Ukraine. It also reflected China’s growing irritation with its controversial neighbor, which has repeatedly ignored Beijing’s appeals to restrain its nuclear activities and resume big-power talks aimed at eliminating its atomic weapons program.

A key question today is whether North Korea’s powerful neighbor, and its largest trading partner, is finally willing to do what it has refused to do in the past: vigorously implement sanctions and use its economic leverage over Pyongyang to modify its behavior. Over the past decade, China has joined the United States in imposing sanctions designed to constrain North Korea’s ability to advance its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program. But it has been lax in enforcing sanctions, putting little pressure on local businesses to limit their trade with Pyongyang to approved goods.

The council’s action comes nearly two months after North Korea on Jan. 6 tested a nuclear explosive in defiance of previous Security Council resolutions. North Korea followed up with a banned missile launch on Feb. 7.

Following almost two months of intensive negotiations, China and the United States reached an agreement last week on a range of sanctions. But Russia delayed a vote until Wednesday as it pushed for some last-minute concessions, which included agreement by the United States to remove the name of a Russia-based representative of the Korean Mining Development Trading Company, or KOMID, from a list of individuals subject to a travel ban and asset freeze. Russia also negotiated an exemption that would allow Russia to continue the transhipment of coal between the Russian border town of Khasan and the North Korean port of Rajin.

After the vote, China and Russia condemned North Korea’s conduct. But they also denounced U.S. plans to deploy an antimissile system to South Korea in response to North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship. The United States and South Korea opened discussions early last month over the possibility of placing a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in the country.

“China opposes the deployment of the THAAD antimissile system on the Korean Peninsula because such action harms the strategic interest of China and other countries of the region,” China’s U.N. envoy, Liu Jieyi, said after the vote. He warned it would jeopardize efforts to maintain stability in the region and “seriously undermine the effort of the international community to see the political solution to the question of the Korean Peninsula.”

The council, he cautioned, needs to “keep calm and use diplomatic wisdom.”

The United States has long sought to deploy its missile system in South Korea to counter Pyongyang’s nuclear activities. But Seoul has until recently demurred, citing concerns that it might provoke Pyongyang to lash out and that it could damage Seoul’s relations with Beijing. But South Korea agreed to begin discussions on the THAAD system after Pyongyang’s Feb. 7 rocket launch.

Speaking to reporters after Wednesday’s vote, Japan’s U.N. ambassador, Motohide Yoshikawa, countered that the antimissile system “would enhance the stability” of the region. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters after the vote that talks are ongoing, but the antimissile system’s deployment would be defensive by nature.

A decade of U.N. sanctions against North Korea has done little to halt Pyongyang’s backdoor entry to the exclusive nuclear weapons club. But Power and other council delegates insisted that this resolution would achieve greater success in halting Kim Jong Un’s nuclear shenanigans.

Power said Wednesday’s resolution included the toughest set of measures imposed on Pyongyang in more than two decades. “This resolution represents a seismic shift in the way the council approaches [North Korea] proliferation concerns,” Power told reporters after the vote. But she cautioned that the North Korean regime is a “master of evasion” that would likely “try to drive a truck through any loopholes they can find.”

Power said that North Korea generates more than $1 billion a year in coal exports and another $200 million in iron ore exports. The resolution, she said, would make it “tougher for the government to get the money it needs to keep funding illicit weapons programs.” The draft would also ban North Korea’s import of rocket fuel for a program that aims to “build an intercontinental ballistic missile, capable of carrying out a nuclear strike a continent away.”

The council — which suspects North Korea of trying to develop a missile capable of delivering a nuclear payload under the cover of its satellite program — strengthened its ban on ballistic missiles, including those purportedly linked to its space program. It also closed gaps in existing sanctions that have allowed North Korea to trade in small arms and other conventional military supplies.

The council also added a list of 16 individuals and 12 firms or government agencies — including representatives for sanctioned North Korean firms in Syria and Iran — that will be subject to a travel ban and freeze on international bank accounts. North Korea will also be banned from establishing new bank branches or financial institutions outside of the country. States will be required to shutter existing banks that engage in prohibited activities — underwriting arms sales or illicitly purchasing nuclear equipment — and expel any North Korean diplomats, businessmen, or foreign nationals implicated in such activities.

U.S. President Barack Obama issued a statement welcoming the council’s show of unity in sending a response to North Korea’s action that is “firm, united and appropriate.”

“Today, the international community, speaking with one voice, has sent Pyongyang a simple message: North Korea must abandon these dangerous programs and choose a better path for its people,” he said.

The U.N. first imposed sanctions on North Korea in 2006, following its first nuclear test. Pyongyang has since detonated three additional nuclear devices and has carried out numerous ballistic missile launches that it claims are part of a peaceful space program.

South Korea’s U.N. envoy, Oh Joon, pleaded with China and other council members to act decisively against North Korea now or face the prospect of a regional “arms race we cannot stop.… If we cannot stop [North Korea] now, then it may soon cross the point of no return.”

Oh closed with a direct message, in Korean, for Pyongyang’s rulers.

“Please stop it now. Why do you need these weapons?” he asked. “You say that the United States is a threat to you. Why would the U.S. threaten you? Why would the strongest military power threaten a small country? There is no threat. It is a figment of your imagination.”

Photo credit: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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