Report

Trump Administration Pulls Back from Aggressive U.N. Resolution on North Korea

In effort to avert Chinese and Russian veto, U.S. drops plans to impose oil embargo on North Korea and seek U.N. green light for U.S. military to use force to board smuggling vessels.

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley (R) speaks with Chinese Ambassador to the United Nations, Liu Jieyi before a UN Security Council emergency meeting over North Korea's latest nuclear test, on September 4, 2017, at UN Headquarters in New York.
Japan on Monday urged the UN Security Council to agree to draft a new sanctions resolution to punish North Korea after its sixth nuclear test as the top UN body met to discuss a response / AFP PHOTO / KENA BETANCUR        (Photo credit should read KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)
United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley (R) speaks with Chinese Ambassador to the United Nations, Liu Jieyi before a UN Security Council emergency meeting over North Korea's latest nuclear test, on September 4, 2017, at UN Headquarters in New York. Japan on Monday urged the UN Security Council to agree to draft a new sanctions resolution to punish North Korea after its sixth nuclear test as the top UN body met to discuss a response / AFP PHOTO / KENA BETANCUR (Photo credit should read KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration clawed back a plan to impose a total oil embargo and other harsh sanctions on North Korea in an effort to avoid a major diplomatic rift at the United Nations with China and Russia. But it succeeded in securing unanimous U.N. support for a resolution that aims to cut North Korean refined oil imports by nearly a third, and bars hundreds of millions of dollars in Pyongyang’s export of textiles.

Facing the prospect of a double veto, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, dropped a provision in a draft Security Council resolution that would have banned all North Korean oil imports and permitted American warships to use force to board vessels that have violated existing U.N. sanctions. The United States also scrapped a plan to impose an asset freeze on the North Korean leader and his government.

The move represents a sharp reversal from a push last week to squeeze North Korea’s economy in response to its Sept. 2 test of a powerful nuclear device that demonstrated Pyonyang’s rapidly improving capabilities. But it also set the stage for a potential agreement among the U.N. key powers on at least a more modest menu of sanctions.

The 15-nation Security Council voted unanimously to adopt the U.S.-drafted resolution.

The current resolution would place a 2 million barrel cap on the volume of refined oil petroleum products North Korea is permitted to import, and place a total ban on the import of natural gas liquids and the export of textiles. North Korea would be prevented from importing more crude oil over the next year than it did in the past year. The draft would limit North Korea’s ability to generate income by sending North Korean laborers abroad to work, with as much as a half billion dollars in proceeds flowing back into Pyongyang’s coffers each year.

Following the vote, Haley told the council that the oil cap would reduce North Korean oil imports by as much as thirty percent, and deprive the regime of some $800 million in revenues from textile experts.  “This will cut deep,” Haley said, adding that the resolution would also ban joint ventures with North Korea.  “In short, these are by far the strongest measures ever imposed on North Korea.”

Haley said the adoption of Monday’s resolution would not have been possible without the cooperation of President Donald Trump and Chinese President Jinping.

The resolution also imposes an asset freeze on three North Korean entities, including the Central military Commission of the Worker’s Party of Korea, which manages the country’s defense industries, as well as a senior member of the commission, Pak Yong Sik. Additionally, the sanctions would target the Worker’s Party’s Organization and Guidance Department and the Propaganda and Agitation Department.

The latest draft dropped a provision crafted to close a loophole that allowed North Korea to export some banned export items, like coal, through the North Korean border crossing at Rajin, the main transit point for goods shipped into Russia.

Washington’s closest ally on the council, Britain, portrayed the latest draft as an important diplomatic achievement. “It is a very robust resolution,” said Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Matthew Rycroft. “It is a very significant set of additional sanctions on imports into North Korea and on exports out of North Korea.”

Rycroft characterized the concessions as the product of the normal give and take of U.N. diplomacy, and added that “there is a significant prize in keeping the whole of the Security Council united.”

Following the vote, China’s U.N. ambassador Liu Jieyi joined Haley in condemning North Korea’s nuclear provocations. But he also voiced alarm over American military exercises in the region, and urged the United States to forswear any goal of “seeking regime change” in Pyongyang, seeking the collapse of the North Korean government, accelerating reunification of the Koreas, or  sending U.S. military forces into the country.

The resolution does include some tightening of existing restrictions on the free passage of vessels engaged in banned trade, but a note attached to the resolution explicitly ruled out the use of military action, noting that a provision strengthening interdiction methods “would not authorize the use of force.”

A U.S. official said that it had intentionally shown its hands in the negotiations to signal their desire for tougher measures. The U.S. also wanted to flush out those countries that diluted the original draft. It was “a deliberate move. We wanted those inclined to water down [the resolution] to own it.”

But other observers suggested that Haley made a tactical error by setting expectations so high in negotiations.  “The political optics are not good for the United States now; it looks like it had retreated,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“It was always clear that there was no way China and Russia could buy the full sanctions package,” Gowan said. “The irony is that there are some solid new sanctions in the current resolution, and the U.S. could have sold this as a reasonable success if they hadn’t demanded even more penalties to begin with.”

Photo credit: KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images

This story has been updated.

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

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