The United States is stepping up calls for China and Russia to comply with new United Nations sanctions on North Korea, a move that experts say would make these measures meaningful and have a significant economic impact on Pyongyang.
The United Nations Security Council on Monday night unanimously passed measures that included restricting North Korea’s imports of crude oil and banning textile exports — a key source of hard currency — in response to the country’s sixth and largest nuclear test. The sanctions, which U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley called the “strongest measures ever imposed on North Korea,” were not as harsh as the U.S. had hoped, however, with an oil embargo and freeze on Kim Jong-un’s assets ultimately dropped.
Dennis Wilder, who served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for East Asian Affairs during President George W. Bush’s second term, noted that “sanctions are only as good as their implementation.”
“The key question now is will the major countries, Russia and China in particular, make sure they effectively implement these? Because there will be all sorts of attempts to get around them. Enforcement is something we’re going to have to watch and see,” he told The Cipher Brief. “If these sanctions are enforced as they’ve been passed, I feel like for the first time we are actually looking at things that really do hurt.”
President Donald Trump on Tuesday called the UN sanctions simply “another very small step, not a big deal.” The sanctions “are nothing compared to what ultimately will have to happen,” he said, but did not elaborate.
According to former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell, the latest sanctions marked a “good, important effort” by the Trump administration.
“They were focused on really tightening the screws on the North,” he said. “While doing so would probably not change the North’s calculus, we must pursue the toughest sanctions we can. We must try a diplomatic solution led by sanctions. So, the administration is doing the right thing.”
North Korea has said it rejects the latest sanctions, and North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations Han Tae Song said “the forthcoming measures by DPRK will make the U.S. suffer the greatest pain it ever experienced in its history.”
Officials in Trump’s administration on Tuesday warned that the U.S. would seek to target banks and companies in China and Russia if they don’t comply with the new international sanctions.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that “if China doesn’t follow these sanctions, we will put additional sanctions on them and prevent them from accessing the U.S. and international dollar system — and that’s quite meaningful.”
And State Department and Treasury Department officials testified to the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the ways Russia and China help Pyongyang evade international sanctions and how the U.S. will be focusing on enforcement.
“We recognize that the success of this pressure strategy will depend on cooperation from international partners, especially China. And we are clear-eyed in viewing China’s growing, if uneven, support for international measures against the DPRK. China has taken some notable steps on implementing sanctions, but we would like to see them do more,” Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton said.
She added that “we continue to engage with China and Russia to further pressure the DPRK, but if they do not act, we will use the tools at our disposal. Just last month, we rolled out new sanctions targeting Russian and Chinese individuals and entities that are — that were doing illicit trade with North Korea.”
Both representatives repeatedly emphasized China’s role, with Treasury Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing Marshall Billingslea saying “what I would focus on is the Chinese as the center of gravity here.” Thornton noted that “we do see China as the key to the solution of this problem if we can get there.”
Wilder noted that “the Chinese were very upset by the sixth nuclear test — they thought they had made clear that was a bridge too far.” And threat of sanctions on Chinese banks to spur a crackdown on North Korea is a “strategy that has worked,” he said.
“Now what they’re doing is using the same threats to say you’d better implement these sanctions. I think that makes sense. It’s a rational decision on the part of the administration to say it’s all well and good to vote for this at the UN, now will you follow through? Because they are meaningless unless they do this,” he said.
Unless those in China and in Russia know there will be a very heavy enforcement price to pay for circumventing the sanctions, illicit behavior will not stop. “The Chinese have to step up, and the Russians have to step up, for this to be meaningful. We’re just going to have to see how fully they implement,” Wilder said.
A new report from the cybersecurity firm FireEye, meanwhile, says that researchers have observed North Korean actors attacking cryptocurrency exchanges to steal bitcoin and other virtual currencies “as a means of evading sanctions and obtaining hard currencies to fund the regime.”
There is “a long pattern within the government of North Korea of using whatever mechanisms they can, whether it’s their embassies overseas or the internet, to get involved in illegal activities,” Wilder said.
“Some of this shows that there has been more desperation, that they’re trying to find other vehicles for making money because their sources of income are drying up. So I think one of the things we’re all going to have to watch for is more illicit activity out of the North,” he said, noting that selling fissile material will be an area of “real concern now” given the new sanctions.
The U.S. had sought even stronger measures than those passed this week, with Morell pointing out that these were “softened considerably in negotiations with the Chinese and the Russians. These negotiations were necessary to ensure that neither Moscow or Beijing would veto the resolution.”
Morell called China “the most important player here, given the dominant role they play in North Korean trade.” China is concerned that tough sanctions could spell instability in North Korea for three major reasons, he said.
“One, they don’t want millions of North Korean refugees coming north into China; two, they don’t want to see loose nukes in North Korea and they fear an unstable, nuclear-armed North Korea more than they do a stable, nuclear-armed North Korea; and three, and perhaps most important to the Chinese, they fear that instability in North Korea could lead to reunification with a united Korea that is aligned with the U.S. sitting right on China’s border,” Morell said.
While Morell said he has his doubts that “even the toughest of Chinese sanctions” would get Kim to give up his strategic weapons program, “that does not mean that we should not try.”
Kim is at a “crossroads” right now, according to Wilder, and his next choices and calculations will be key.
“He’s done the nuclear test, he’s done some missile testing. Does he decide that this is a point at which he tests out the negotiating track to see what carrots might be offered him to stop testing? Or does he feel he has to continue testing in order to prove to the world that sanctions aren’t going to deter him?”
Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Titter @mweinger.