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The UN Security Council's New North Korea Sanctions Are All About China

China not only approved a new round of stringent sanctions against its longtime ally but actually helped to draft them, in a move calculated to bolster its national interest.
Photo by Roman Harak

Read and watch more about North Korea in "March Madness," a VICE News special section on the Hermit Kingdom.

The United Nations Security Council on Wednesday levied some of its strongest sanctions in decades against North Korea as punishment for the country's fourth nuclear test, conducted in January, and its launch of a long-range missile the following month. The punitive resolution was particularly notable in that North Korea's longtime ally China not only approved it, but actually helped to draft its far-reaching measures, including universal inspections of goods entering and exiting the country. The effective enforcement of such provisions, however, remains largely its responsibility.


China is North Korea's largest trading partner, making up roughly 70 percent of the country's total trade, according to a January report published by the Congressional Research Service. North Korea, which is formally known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), routinely makes use of front companies based in China to circumvent sanctions imposed by the Security Council. Much of the money that North Korea uses to fund its weapons programs and other operations comes from its exportation of mining products, primarily coal, to China. With the passage of Wednesday's resolution, UN member states, including China, are forbidden from buying coal as well as commodities like iron ore and rare earth materials directly from North Korea.

Though commonly portrayed as a strong ally of the DPRK, China's relations with its neighbor have grown strained in recent years, as North Korea's routine belligerence has vexed the leadership in Beijing. Part of China's reasoning for holding off on more severe sanctions in the past was a concern that they could provoke the so-called Hermit Kingdom into posing an even greater threat to surrounding nations. January's congressional report observed that "China's overriding priority appears to be to prevent a collapse of North Korea." Beijing, it said, "fears the destabilizing effects of a humanitarian crisis, significant refugee flows over its borders, and the uncertainty of how other nations, particularly the United States, would assert themselves on the peninsula in the event of a power vacuum."


"They don't want to push a wounded animal into a corner," said Victor Cha, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University. "Very strong sanctions could possibly collapse or cause instability in the regime. China doesn't want instability on its border."

With that delicate dynamic in mind, Cha said that China's stringent enforcement of the resolution that it helped shape remains an open question.

"It's one thing to get the resolution. The next thing is whether they really comply with it," he remarked. "Ninety percent of that is Chinese compliance."

China might have already begun taking steps to ratchet pressure on the DPRK prior to the passage of Wednesday's resolution. In February, the South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo reported that at least one branch of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the country's largest bank, was freezing accounts opened by North Koreans. Chinese authorities did not comment on the reported move, though experts say Beijing are likely inclined to keep such actions private.

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Some of the language in the new resolution remains vague, particularly regarding how goods traveling into and out of North Korea are to be inspected. The text stipulates that humanitarian supplies be permitted entry with minimal interference, and that coal originating from outside the DPRK be allowed to traverse the port of Rajin, near the Russian border — an inclusion made at the request of Moscow. Exemptions from new sanctions, including the inspection process, are made for "transactions that are determined to be exclusively for livelihood purposes and unrelated to generating revenue for the DPRK's nuclear or ballistic missile programs," and other activities prohibited in previous resolutions.


"All of these resolutions involve discretion by member states to interpret many of the provisions," said Scott Snyder, director of the Council of Foreign Relation's US-Korea policy program. "It doesn't necessarily mean that the states follow through."

Given such ambiguities — and considering the political fallout should the US cite China for violating Security Council resolutions, or its own unilateral North Korea sanctions — Beijing will continue to have wide latitude to step up or relax enforcement as it sees fit. In an analysis of Wednesday's resolution, Andrea Berger, deputy director of the proliferation and nuclear policy program at the Royal United Services Institute, wrote on the blog 38 North that China "will vary its enforcement of new measures in accordance with North Korea's own behavior."

"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, but only periodic use of the measures to demonstrate displeasures with Pyongyang's actions: an occasional pinching action," she wrote.

None of the analysts that VICE News spoke with predicted that China would vigorously enforce the sanctions passed this week. Much of what crosses the border is either the result of bartered transactions or illicit transfers, which are not recorded. Full implementation of the resolution's provisions could drive trade further underground.


As Cha noted, there are also more straightforward concerns. Businesses in the two Chinese provinces that adjoin the DPRK, Jilin and Liaoning, rely heavily on trade with North Korea. This commerce, Cha said, "is important for China internally."

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However China chooses to implement the new sanctions regime, it will do so with diplomatic imperatives that are markedly different from those in Washington. While the text of the resolution calls for a return to six-party denuclearization talks involving the US, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and North Korea, Beijing has separately raised the goal of broader negotiations. During a February trip to Washington, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that his government wanted to pursue an additional, parallel track centered on "the replacement of the Korean armistice with a peace agreement." Such a deal, which would officially end the Korean War, is also said to be a preferred goal of DPRK leader Kim Jong-un's government.

"You've got the resolution, but you've also got ongoing interactions between the US and China regarding implementation," said Snyder. "The Chinese explicitly view sanctions as an instrument by which to return to negotiations."

According to a February report in the Wall Street Journal, the US had agreed to negotiations aimed at formally ending the Korean War shortly before North Korean conducted a nuclear test on January 6. The account said that the US had conceded to having the issue of denuclearization be one of several elements under discussion rather than insist on it as an outright precondition of talks, as it has publicly maintained. Though the nuclear test likely derailed such an arrangement, the Chinese could be hoping to bring Washington back to the table under similar conditions.


"What the Chinese want is for the US to sit down and have these detailed discussions with the North Koreans," said Joel Witt, a visiting scholar at the US-Korea institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "I'm sure the Chinese have made it very clear to the Americans what the US needs to do in terms of what are the next steps, and if the US doesn't do it, then the Chinese have a lot of cards in their hand."

Another element at play in US-Chinese diplomacy regarding the DPRK is the planned deployment of the American-made Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense(THAAD) anti-missile system to South Korea, which Beijing's ambassador to the UN criticized on Wednesday. The positioning of THAAD systems to the region, said diplomat Liu Jieyi, would "seriously undermined the effort of the international community to see the political solution to the question of the Korean peninsula."

Witt said that China's acquiescence to severe sanctions can't help but be viewed in the context of the potential THAAD deployment. Beijing is accumulating bargaining chips, he said, to be used with the US and South Korea in dialogue over the installation of the missile defense system, which China views as an encroachment of US interests within its sphere as it attempts to assert military influence in Asia.

"China is pursuing its national interest," said Witt. "By moving forward with these bigger and better sanctions, it's building up its leverage over the North Koreans, but also over the United States."

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford

Photo via Flickr