On North Korea, Obama Sings His Nuclear Swan Song
The United States, with the help of China, secured tough new U.N. sanctions against North Korea. But that probably won’t make Pyongyang park its nuclear program.
In what’s likely to mark its final bout of nuclear diplomacy, the Obama administration secured unanimous passage Wednesday of a U.N. Security Council resolution meant to further choke North Korea’s earnings in retaliation for developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
The resolution targets coal, North Korea’s most lucrative export, slashing the amount it can sell by 60 percent from last year’s levels. This is a big deal for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un; he will now face a $700 million shortfall in revenue compared to last year. The sanctions target other sources of income for Kim Jong Un’s pariah state, including exports of silver, copper, and nickel — together worth about $100 million a year to the regime — and restrict Pyongyang’s ability to ship workers abroad to raise profits from their labor. The resolution also bars the import of luxury items, like rugs and bone china sets, that cost respectively more than $500 or $1,000.
What the resolution doesn’t do is inspire much optimism that Kim Jong Un will submit to multiple U.N. demands to destroy the regime’s existing nuclear weapons and scrap its program to build more.
“The United States is realistic about what this resolution will achieve. No resolution in New York will likely, tomorrow, persuade Pyongyang to cease its relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power said. But the resolution “imposes unprecedented costs on the DPRK regime for defying this Council’s demands,” she added. The sanctions, if fully implemented, would erase about one-quarter of North Korea’s export earnings.
Eight years of U.S. and U.N. diplomatic maneuvering during President Barack Obama’s tenure has left North Korea increasingly isolated. But it has still utterly failed to achieve the primary goal of curbing the country’s nuclear weapons and missile program. North Korea has detonated five nuclear weapons in underground tests since 2006 — four while Obama was in office — and conducted a flurry of missile launches for its growing missile arsenal. U.S. intelligence officers believe it is only a matter of time before the regime builds a nuclear-tipped intercontinental missile capable of striking the United States.
The resolution on Wednesday was designed to address a gaping loophole in a previous set of sanctions adopted in March that allowed coal exports from the North for “livelihood” reasons. China, with its large appetite for commodities, cited the exception to increase imports of coal from its neighbor since the spring.
The new measures are the product of U.S. lobbying of China over the issue, including a veiled threat that the United States would take unilateral action against Chinese companies doing illegal business with the North. In a move seen as a warning to Beijing, the Treasury Department in September issued criminal charges against Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development Co. and its owner, alleging that the Chinese firm had links to a notorious North Korean bank, Kwangson Banking.
The U.N. resolution also reflects China’s frustration with the North, as the regime’s provocative actions have irritated Beijing and prompted South Korea to acquire a sophisticated missile defense system that China views a threat to its own military.
But the sanctions fall short of what the United States and European powers had urged, as China wants to increase pressure on Pyongyang while avoiding a collapse of the regime and an influx of penniless North Korean refugees, diplomats and experts said.
“This is carefully calibrated by the Chinese. They want to tighten the screws but not to the point where the regime is brought to its knees,” a congressional staffer told Foreign Policy.
China holds all the leverage when it comes to the North Korean regime’s access to cash. Roughly 70 percent of the North’s trade runs through China, including most of its food supplies. High-quality coal exported to China for use in industry makes up about one-third of North Korea’s total export earnings.
North Korea took center stage in the U.S. presidential elections after its latest nuclear test at the height of campaign season in September. But President-elect Donald Trump’s erratic comments have made it hard to predict the incoming administration’s North Korea policy — much less its wider plans for diplomacy.
In February, the president-elect appeared to suggest the United States should assassinate Kim Jong Un, saying “I would get China to make that guy disappear in one form or another very quickly.” And in March, Trump rattled U.S. allies Japan and South Korea by suggesting they acquire their own nuclear weapons to defend themselves against North Korea — a dramatic shift in America’s long-established nuclear policy of nonproliferation.
But in May, the former reality television star took a decidedly softer stance toward the North Korean strongman, saying he would talk to him. To add another complicated layer to the mix, Trump’s incoming national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, wrote a book arguing China — who helped the United States secure the latest U.N. sanctions — and North Korea have ties to jihadists in the Middle East.
The previous round of sanctions imposed earlier this year against Pyongyang failed to make a dent in commerce between the North and China, or in the regime’s coal exports. The two countries traded goods worth $525.24 million in October, up 21.1 percent from a year ago. It was the third month in a row that trade went up, according to data from China’s General Administration of Customs.
North Korea has successfully circumvented and worked around the vast array of sanctions that have been imposed over the past decade, paying big fees to Chinese middlemen to handle the logistics of transactions with regime banks and companies.
The sanctions unveiled Wednesday target coal exports to China in particular, which have generated more than $1 billion in income for the regime annually.
“That’s money that’s directly going to come out of the regime’s pocket that will then be unavailable for them to use on their nuclear program,” British U.N. ambassador Matthew Rycroft said.
But experts say North Korea pocketed large sums of cash when coal and other commodity prices spiked between 2007 and 2010, and is likely still drawing on those reserves.
Senior Staff Writer Colum Lynch contributed to this report.
Photo credit: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer