FILE - Farmers work their fields outside the Sungri Chemical Factory, an oil refinery in the Rason Special Economic Zone near North Korea's Russian and Chinese borders, July 23, 2016.
FILE - Farmers work their fields outside the Sungri Chemical Factory, an oil refinery in the Rason Special Economic Zone near North Korea's Russian and Chinese borders, July 23, 2016.

WASHINGTON - Whether the new U.N. sanctions against North Korea will curb Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, experts on the Koreas and members of President Donald Trump’s administration say placing limits on the Kim Jong Un regime’s oil imports amounts to a significant step forward.

After the underground nuclear explosion Sept. 3 that North Korea said was a successful test of a hydrogen bomb, the United Nations Security Council agreed unanimously this week to adopt the strongest sanctions ever imposed on North Korea. The sanctions are intended to further isolate the country economically and reduce the hard currency the regime uses to finance its banned nuclear weapons activity.

Notable sanction: oil imports

The Security Council also banned North Korean textile exports and barred Pyongyang from sending its citizens to work abroad. Foreign remittances had been another key source of hard currency for Kim.
The new measures are in addition to embargoes enacted last month for Pyongyang’s most lucrative exports — coal, iron, lead and seafood.

The most notable part of the package of multiple sanctions, however, placed a limit on North Korea’s imports of refined petroleum products. Beijing and Moscow, North Korea’s two main oil suppliers, insisted on allowing some imports to continue — 2 million barrels per year, which the Security Council is said to have interpreted as a 30 percent reduction from current levels — in order to derail the Trump administration’s original call for an embargo on all oil trade with Kim’s regime.

Trucks drive on the Friendship Bridge over the Yal
Trucks drive on the Friendship Bridge over the Yalu River which connects North Korea's Sinuiju to China's Dandong, April 11, 2013.

Many opponents of Pyongyang’s increasingly belligerent behavior and threats aimed at the U.S. and its allies expressed disappointment that the U.N. sanctions did not go further. However, policy experts noted the significance of China’s support for oil sanctions of any kind against North Korea — a first for Beijing.

“The oil sanction [is] important because it marks the first time that restrictions have been placed on exports of oil to North Korea,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). She noted that China’s dissatisfaction with its North Korean ally has become apparent as Kim’s regime disregarded Beijing’s repeated warnings not to conduct further missile and nuclear tests.

“Perhaps future North Korean nuclear tests will persuade China to further limit oil supplies to North Korea,” Glaser said.

Room to add more

William Brown, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, closely follows the Korean economies. Since China has previously refused to consider sanctions against a sacrosanct sector of North Korea’s economy, Brown said, Beijing’s yes vote for sanctions on oil products has intensified the confrontation between North Korea and the international community.

“I am not too happy with these sanctions,” Brown told VOA, saying that he saw a 2-million-barrel cap on oil imports as only a 10 percent reduction for North Korea. However, Brown added, “the plus side” of the latest Security Council action was China’s willingness to agree to any oil reduction for Pyongyang. “They have always said that’s the lifeline for North Korea and [they] wouldn’t touch it,” the American expert said.

A 2-million-barrel cap on oil products going to North Korea represents a 10 percent cut, Brown said, since published Chinese customs data indicate Pyongyang’s annual imports total 2.2 million barrels.

Agreeing to put a ceiling on oil sales to North Korea, rather than an outright ban, also could be seen as another partial step by China, leaving room for still greater pressure on Pyongyang in the future, if necessary, Brown added. He cited international action on North Korea’s coal exports as a parallel: the full ban that the Security Council approved last month tightened two lesser sanctions adopted last year.

The first action in 2016 allowed exceptions to the coal export ban assured the “livelihood” of North Korean workers. The second imposed a cap, or ceiling, not on North Korea, but on its trading partners, who were forbidden from importing more than 7.5 million tons, or $400,000 worth of coal, per year.

In the same way, Brown said, the “next time [the North Koreans] do a missile test or a nuclear test, China can turn the screw and reduce the oil.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks to China's U.N. Ambassador Liu Jieyi after a vote to adopt a new sanctions resolution against North Korea during a meeting of the U.N. Security Council, Sept. 11, 2017.

A floor, not a ceiling

The State Department told VOA’s Korean Service Tuesday that the new U.N. sanctions are only the beginning of what is to come, and called on all U.N. member states to do more to deter North Korea’s military expansion.

“We see U.N. Security Council resolutions as the floor, not the ceiling, on what the international community can do to respond to North Korea’s continued provocations,” said Grace Choi of the State Department’s East Asian and Pacific affairs bureau. “No one U.N. resolution will compel North Korea to give up its nuclear program. We need … countries to take additional action to pressure and to persuade [the North Koreans] that they need to reconsider the path they are currently on, and think about engaging in meaningful dialogue about a different future.”

Joshua Stanton, a Washington-based lawyer and North Korea sanctions expert, said the U.N. measures, if they are enforced, could be coupled with U.S. sanctions that impose legal consequences on individuals engaged in illicit business with North Korea, and would be another method of discouraging North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, speaking in New York Tuesday, said that if Beijing fails to comply with the new U.N. restrictions, Washington would take action against Chinese individuals or entities that support the Kim regime’s nuclear and missile programs, by preventing their access to the international system of dollar credits, deposits and trade.

Baik Sungwon contributed to this report.