Even as the United States calls for imposing new sanctions on North Korea, experts suggest increased enforcement of current sanctions might do more to pressure the regime into reversing course as Pyongyang celebrates its nuclear achievements.
The U.S. and South Korea believe Pyongyang could conduct a nuclear test as it marks the 110th anniversary of founding leader Kim Il Sung’s birthday, the so-called Day of the Sun, on Friday. North Korea has not conducted a nuclear test since 2017.
Also this week, North Korea is saluting the achievements of Kim Jong Un, the founder’s grandson, during his first decade as leader.
Prominent among the accomplishments cited is the continued development of nuclear weapons. The younger Kim began his ascent to power when his father, Kim Jong Il, died in 2011. Since becoming head of the North Korean Workers’ Party in 2012, and soon after the first chairman of the National Defense Commission — then the highest government organization of North Korea — Kim has overseen four of the nation’s six nuclear tests.
Kim Jong Il conducted the other tests in 2006 and 2009.
During the run-up to the festivities, satellite imagery showed North Korea gearing up for a possible nuclear test at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site. Pyongyang partially sealed tunnels at the site after detonations in 2018 in front of international witnesses. The site and its tunnels were used for underground nuclear tests.
After North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions aimed at curbing the country’s nuclear and missile programs. As Pyongyang has ratcheted up tests since then, more sanctions were issued to tighten its imports and exports to prevent the regime from funding its weapons program, especially so in 2017 in response to North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile tests.
“Adding more sanctions … is not going to change anything fundamentally” for North Korea to change its stance, said Bradley Babson, former World Bank adviser and an advisory council member of the Korea Economic Institute of America.
“I just don’t think it adds much pressure,” he told VOA’s Korean Service.
William Brown, a former CIA analyst who continues to closely monitor the North Korean economy, said current sanctions “are already tough, very tough.” He continued, “They already prohibit most North Korean exports, and quite a lot of North Korean imports, so the issue to me isn’t about adding more sanctions. It’s continuing to apply the sanctions that are already in place.”
The U.S. has been calling for a new U.N. resolution on North Korea after the regime conducted an intercontinental ballistic missile test on March 24.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said on March 25 at a meeting held in response to the ICBM test that the U.S. will be introducing a new U.N. resolution.
“In Security Council Resolution 2397, which we unanimously adopted, the council decided we would take further action in the event of a DPRK ICBM launch,” Thomas-Greenfield said. She continued, “This is precisely what happened, so now is the time to take that action.”
The U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 2397 in December 2017 in response to North Korea’s ICBM launch of the Hwasong-15 the previous month, further restricting its imports and exports, especially reducing the cap on its oil imports.
Aaron Arnold, senior associate fellow at the Center for Financial Crime and Security Studies at London-based Royal United Services Institute, pointed out that the resolution “calls for additional reduction on the refined petroleum import caps should the DPRK conduct another ICBM or nuclear test.”
North Korea’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Joshua Stanton, a Washington-based attorney who helped draft the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement and Policy Enforcement Act of 2016, said lowering the oil caps on North Korea is “a bad idea.”
“Oil caps are practically impossible to enforce when much of the oil comes through a pipeline over the Chinese border anyway,” he said.
Resolution 2397 placed annual caps on North Korea’s imports of refined petroleum to 500,000 barrels and crude oil to 4 million barrels.
An oil pipeline under the Yalu River that runs between Dandong, China, and North Korea’s Paengma-ri Petroleum Production Storage Facility in Pihyon was thought to be the main method China used to send crude oil to North Korea, although it is now believed to be closed for construction.
Stanton said the U.S. should focus its resources on enforcing sanctions.
“Rather than haggle for a new resolution, President (Joe) Biden should crack down on the Russian and Chinese banks, ports and shipping companies that help Kim Jong Un sell his coal, mineral and seafood, and then launder the proceeds through our banks,” he said.
U.N. Security Council Resolution 2371, passed in August 2017 in response to North Korea’s ICBM tests the month before, banned the regime’s exports of coal, iron and seafood. But Pyongyang often manages to evade sanctions to sell these products by illicit means.
Troy Stangarone, senior director of the Korean Economic Institute, also told VOA’s Korean Service that “sanctions enforcement is much more important ultimately than adding more sanctions.”
He continued to say that North Korea is relying more on its worldwide smuggling network than normal trading, and its border closure prolonged through the COVID-19 pandemic probably incentivized its illicit smuggling activities.
Stangarone added, “What we’ve seen is this perplexing situation where even in some situations like commodities sold in the world market like oil, that we are seeing the North Koreans bring in more via smuggling than they are bringing in by licit trade. That suggests, for them right now, it is easier to go through these informal networks than to go through formal networks and even meet what the U.N. would allow them to trade.”
North Korea imported fewer petroleum products in 2021 than the cap placed by sanctions, according to Chinese customs data, as well as Beijing’s North Korean oil export totals reported to the U.N. in 2021. Most of these products are exported from China.
If a new U.N. resolution is introduced, however, the veto-yielding permanent five members of the Security Council are unlikely to reach an agreement to pass a new resolution on North Korea, even though North Korea conducted ICBM tests, said experts.
“I don’t think any sanctions resolution that we’re going to put to the Security Council will be accepted by either China or Russia,” Babson of the Korea Economic Institute said.
“I’m very skeptical that the U.N. Security Council is going to play any kind of meaningful role from here on out in dealing with the North Korean situation. It’s kind of exhausted its practical capabilities.”
Journalists Hyeongjoo Park and Jiha Ham of VOA’s Korean Service contributed to this report.