WASHINGTON - To better curtail North Korea’s efforts at undermining international sanctions, experts would like to see a global coalition create a coordinated enforcement agency to improve the current efforts to squeeze Pyongyang’s economy and thwart its nuclear ambitions.
“What we need is a multilayered coalition approach that coordinates the law, rules, regulations, information sharing, and enforcement” of sanctions on North Korea, said Joshua Stanton, a Washington-based attorney who helped draft the North Korean Sanctions Enforcement Act of 2016.
Currently, there is no single international body that can act as an agency to enforce sanctions on North Korea, which means U.N. member states are on their own to follow U.N. obligations to enforce sanctions on North Korea. But some states do not have sufficient skills and resources to comply with sanctions.
“The closest thing we have is the U.N. Security Council 1718 [Sanctions] Committee [on North Korea], which is, of course informed by the Panel of Experts,” Stanton said. “The 1718 Committee is slow, and it’s weak. The Panel of Experts is excellent but has no enforcement authority.”
The Panel of Experts advises the sanctions committee on North Korea on how best to combat Pyongyang’s efforts to evade sanctions.
But some states do not have sufficient capabilities, knowledge and resources to comply with sanctions while countries like China and Russia are known as outright violators of sanctions.
The U.S. Treasury Department on Wednesday sanctioned a Russian entity suspected of assisting North Korea in evading sanctions by helping it access international financial systems to generate revenue for its nuclear program. The Russian Financial Society was accused of providing financial and technological support to Dandong Zhongsheng, an entity owned and controlled by North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank (FTB). Both Dandong Zhongsheng and FTB were previously sanctioned, according to the Treasury Department.
Fifty-six countries were involved in violating U.N. sanctions on North Korea from February 2018 to February 2019, according to a report issued by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) earlier this month.
That’s an increase of seven countries compared with violators between March 2014 and September 2017, according a 2017 report issued by the same Washington-based think tank.
List of violators
The 56 countries that violated sanctions did so to varying degrees depending on their willingness and capabilities to enforce sanctions, according to Washington-based attorney Stanton.
Countries such as the U.S., U.K., Canada and Japan, which are not on the report, are willing and able to enforce sanctions, Stanton said. But others such Malaysia and Mozambique, which are included in the report, are willing but lack the resources, knowledge and capabilities to implement sanctions properly.
Countries considered willing and able to enforce sanctions such as France and New Zealand, however, were involved in indirect violation of sanctions, according to the ISIS report.
The report indicates that France was unable to prevent its citizens from working with North Korea’s Nam Nam Cooperative General Company to build a military camp in Sierra Leone. The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned the company. The report doesn’t specify the date of violation.
The report also cites New Zealand’s Pacific Aerospace, a company that indirectly exported aircraft parts to North Korea through a Chinese aviation company in 2017.
Beijing General Aviation Company then sold its aircraft with the New Zealand parts to Freesky Aviation Company, which based its aircraft in North Korea where they are used for tourism.
The New Zealand company was fined for the indirect export and adopted new export control practices.
“[The report] mostly tells us that the developed countries simply are … not doing what they need to do to enforce sanctions,” Stanton said. “What this really looks like to me is poor coordination and poor information sharing.”
North Korea allies
Meanwhile, North Korea’s allies, China and Russia, both permanent members of the U.N. Security Council that agreed to place sanctions on North Korea, are known to be flagrant violators of sanctions. Chinese and Russian companies are known to benefit from trading with North Korea.
Last week, the U.S. and its allies including Australia, France, Japan and Germany submitted a letter of complaint to the U.N. Security Council Sanctions Committee on North Korea, accusing North Korea of illegally importing more than the allowed annual cap of 500,000 barrels of refined petroleum in violation of sanctions. The countries asked the committee to order Pyongyang to halt illicit transfers of oil between ships at sea.
The complaint did not mention countries involved in transferring oil to North Korea but in September, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, accused Russia of cheating U.N. sanctions by illegally supplying fuel to North Korea at sea.
Robert Huish, a sanctions expert at Canada’s Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, said issuing sanctions is not enough to make North Korea comply because countries fall short on enforcement.
“Sanctions are often a quick political victory for those who [issue] them, but they are incredibly difficult to enforce,” because North Korea uses deceptive practices to evade sanctions and countries like China and Russia help Pyongyang circumvent them, Huish said. “With regards to the ship-to-ship transfers of acquired oil and resources, North Korea is growing more and more advanced in its methods.”
Troy Stangarone, senior director at the Korea Economic Institute, said, “The United States will need to play an important role in sanctions enforcement.” He continued, “The key is ensuring that information … [is] shared and this requires cooperation … around the world.”
Stanton said enforcing sanctions and establishing a multilateral enforcement agent “has to begin with developed states that have both a desire to enforce the resolutions and means to enforce the resolutions.”
However, Michael Greenwald, a former senior diplomat at the U.S. Treasury Department who is now a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, said, “A multilateral framework, while an ideal solution to this problem, would suffer major vulnerabilities.”
China and Russia are likely to take actions to “oppose it outright or water down enforcement mechanisms given their interests in continuing to evade sanctions,” Greenwald said.
While meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe at a security conference in Singapore early this month, outgoing acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who withdrew his nomination Tuesday, showed evidence of China letting North Korea violate sanctions off its coast.
The proof was 32 pages of photo and satellite images of North Korea getting shipments of oil including through ship-to-ship transfers.
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Joe Buccino said Shanahan showed the photos to suggest the Chinese coast is “an area of potential coordination and collaboration” between Chinese and the U.S. to enforce sanctions on North Korea.
“Trump is putting pressure on China that no other president has been willing to put on China before,” Stanton said. “China is acting as though it will resist that pressure, but it cannot resist it for long because it’s beginning to have significant effect on the Chinese economy.”
The Trump administration blacklisted China’s tech company Huawei last month accusing the firm of stealing trade secrets and causing a threat to the U.S. national security.
Also last month, a federal judge in Washington ordered three Chinese banks to hand over information about how it facilitated a transaction for a Hong Kong corporation suspected of helping North Korea evade sanctions through money laundering.