BEIJING: New United Nations sanctions against nuclear-armed North Korea are being touted as the “toughest ever,” but loopholes leave plenty of room for Pyongyang’s key economic supporter China to continue business as usual, analysts and diplomats said Thursday.
The Security Council measures are the product of seven weeks of arduous negotiations between Washington and Beijing, Pyongyang’s sole ally and main provider of trade and aid.
In 2014, China accounted for more than 90 percent of North Korea’s $7.61 billion in total trade, according to the latest available figures from South Korea’s state-run Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.
But despite this potential leverage, Beijing has long resisted targeting Pyongyang’s fragile economy over its atomic and missile ambitions.
The roots of their alliance were forged during the Korean War, and Beijing fears that a collapse of the regime would lead to a flood of refugees — and worse, that a reunified Korea would see US troops stationed on its border.
US officials described the latest Security Council resolution as the toughest ever imposed on Pyongyang, which has repeatedly flouted the United Nations’ edicts.
But one of the document’s key provisos — a ban on exports of coal, iron, gold, titanium and rare earth minerals from North Korea — provides an exception if the proceeds do not go towards funding its nuclear or weapons programs.
That determination, a US diplomat told AFP, is at the sole discretion of Pyongyang’s trading partners. There is no requirement to report such transactions to the UN’s sanctions committee.
“In practice, this provision means that China and other North Korean coal and iron importers will be able to take solace in vague language when they wish to”, said Andrea Berger, an expert on Korean peninsula security issues at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London.
“The most likely outcome of caveated sanctions on coal and iron trade is that there will be little systematic curbing of North Korean coal imports,” she said, adding that China might simply make “periodic use of the measure to demonstrate displeasure with Pyongyang’s actions: an occasional pinching action.”
Trade with China is critical to the isolated, impoverished North, which has suffered regular food shortages.
According to Chinese Customs data, imports from North Korea totalled $2.56 billion last year, including $1.05 billion worth of coal and another $73 million of iron.
Washington has long held that changing North Korea’s behavior depends on China’s willingness to pressure Pyongyang via its economic relationship.
Intense US lobbying on the new sanctions included a visit by Secretary of State John Kerry to Beijing, where his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi stressed that new sanctions should not hurt North Korean citizens or raise tensions.
China was “very reluctant” to stop importing minerals from North Korea, according to Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Beijing “probably fought hard against economic sanctions”, she said, adding that they “would have preferred to do the minimum, but the US insisted that there not be business as usual.”
Wait and see
North Korea has conducted four nuclear tests, most recently in January, and officials in Beijing frequently say they are powerless to rein in its neighbor, even as they urge stability on the peninsula.
Pyongyang’s actions have put Beijing “in a very difficult situation”, said Jin Qiangyi, professor of international politics at Yanbian University in the northeastern province of Jilin, which borders North Korea.
“The continued nuclear and missile tests by North Korea have posed a great threat to China and it has to take some measures,” he said, suggesting that companies with links to the North’s ruling Workers Party might be considered for targeting.
The UN Security Council has imposed four sets of sanctions on North Korea since it first tested an atomic device in 2006.
But there are “no indications that the country intends to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” a UN panel of experts said in February, raising “serious questions about the efficacy of the current United Nations sanctions regime.”
“We will have to wait and see whether the sanctions will change North Korea’s determination,” Jin said.
Pyongyang followed the latest resolution’s passage with a volley of short-range projectiles into the sea off its eastern coast.
It seemed, Jin said, to be “sending out the message that it will not give in.”