24.04.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The sanctions regime against the DPRK under threat

The sanctions regime against the DPRK under threat

On March 28, 2024, Russia vetoed the extension of the mandate of the UN panel of experts to monitor the sanctions against the DPRK until April 30, 2025. This is important, because according to the established procedure, the decision to extend the term of office of the so-called 1718 Sanctions Committee must be made by April 30, otherwise it will be unable to continue with its activities.

What is the 1718 Sanctions Committee?

Resolution 1718 was adopted in October 2006 in response to the nuclear threat posed by North Korea. The Resolution prohibited the supply, sale or transfer to the DPRK of any military equipment and weapons, and also of materials, equipment, goods and technology that could be used in North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction programs. Since then, the UN Security Council has adopted a number of other resolutions tightening the sanctions on North Korea.

The eight-member Panel of Experts supporting the UN Sanctions Committee on North Korea was established in 2009 pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 1874, which was adopted in response to the DPRK’s second nuclear test, to monitor compliance with the sanctions imposed on the DPRK by the UN member states. A panel of eight UN Secretary General-approved experts from the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia, as well as South Korea, Japan and Singapore (theoretically) – collects, studies, analyzes data on the implementation of sanctions against the DPRK, submits a twice-annual report on sanctions violations to the United Nations Security Council based on information from UN member states and other open source materials, and makes recommendations on the sanctions issue.

Since its founding the group has reportedly uncovered a number of sanctions violations, including those related to the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs and other prohibited activities such as the import of luxury goods and ship-to-ship transfers of sanctioned items.

The UN Security Council votes annually to extend the Panel’s mandate, and in 2023 Russia voted in favor of the extension.

Two days before the vote, NK News, citing “informed sources at the UN,” reported that Russia and China had proposed adding “sunset” clauses to the sanctions regime against the DPRK as a precondition for extending the Panel’s mandate. They proposed adding an expiration date to the de facto open-ended sanctions regime, and requiring a new consensus of the UN Security Council member states in order to renew the sanctions for a further term. Russia also proposed reducing the frequency of the group’s reports submission from twice to once a year.

The NK News article noted that the US, UK and France refuse to accept these proposals, which means that Moscow will be likely to veto the extension of the Panel’s mandate.

The Russian proposals were rejected and Russia blocked a draft resolution submitted by the United States, although 13 of the 15 UN Security Council members voted in favor of it. The representative of China, who abstained from voting, expressed support for Russia’s position, saying that the proposal to set an expiration date for sanctions on North Korea was “highly practical and quite feasible.”


Russia’s arguments

Explaining the reason for Russia’s exercise of its veto right Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, said that the authors of the document did not take into account Moscow’s proposal to set a time limit for the sanctions against North Korea, which remain indefinite.

As Vasily Nebenzya stated before the vote, it was “long overdue” for the Council to update the sanctions regime against the DPRK in light of the realities of the situation.

However, all attempts by Russia and China to link the level of sanctions pressure with the current behavior of the DPRK “have always been met with the absolute unwillingness of Western countries to depart from their destructive and punitive logic towards the DPRK.”

The 1718 Committee’s Panel of Experts, tasked with monitoring the sanctions policy, “failed to perform its direct duties” and was unable to “develop sober assessments of the state of the sanctions regime,” and as a result “its work was reduced to playing along with the West’s policies, repeating biased information, and analyzing newspaper headlines and low-quality pictures.”

Unfortunately, the present author has to agree with this statement, because the Panel’s reports included almost exclusively “investigations” made by sensationalist media outlets, with no critical analysis and an overreliance on the phrase “highly likely.”

According to the Russian representative, the West, led by the United States, is trying to “strangle” the DPRK through unilateral restrictions, propaganda and threats against the country’s leadership.

Given the above background, Russia proposed that the Council embark on an open and honest review of its sanctions measures against the DPRK, but “the US and its allies did not want to hear us and did not include our proposals in the draft resolution which was put to a vote today. Under these conditions, we do not see any ‘added value’ in the work of the Committee’s Panel of Experts and cannot support the American draft.”

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova has twice commented on the problem, emphasizing that “the Council can no longer act according to its established patterns with regard to the Korean Peninsula issue.” The security situation in the region has not improved over the long years of sanctions (the DPRK’s missile and nuclear capabilities have only grown, the present author would add), and the devastating humanitarian consequences of the sanctions on the DPRK’s civilian population are evident. Moreover, it is not the DPRK that is aggravating the current situation, but rather the increasingly aggressive military activity of the United States and its allies that is leading to a new round of escalation in the region.

Many experts agree with this assessment. For example, Andrei Lankov, a prominent Russian-speaking researcher on the DPRK, told NK News that the increasing politicization of the Panel of Experts’ work has rendered it unable to reliably monitor the extent of the DPRK’s sanctions evasion. In his view, the differences of opinion within the DPRK Panel of Experts “reflect the main problem with the UN in its current form: it can only work if there is a consensus of the major powers.”

What was the reaction of the “international community”?


As Russian military expert Vladimir Khrustalev notes, the suspension of the Panel of Experts’ mandate significantly undermines the viability and certain legal aspects of the sanctions regime in its previous form.

But, of course, the reaction of US and South Korean officials and experts has been to condemn Russia. Western analysts say the absence of the 1718 Committee, whose main task is to monitor sanctions violations, would make it easier for Russia to engage in arms deals with the DPRK – long accepted in the West as an established fact.

US Department of State spokesman Matthew Miller expressed disappointment over Russia’s veto of the resolution and China’s abstention, calling the Committee the “gold standard” for providing fact-based, independent analysis and recommendations.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry expressed “deep regret” over the veto: “The Panel of Experts has fulfilled its role in monitoring the DPRK, which… continues to violate sanctions through various illegal actions such as nuclear and missile provocations, arms exports, sending workers abroad, cyberattacks and military cooperation with the Russian Federation, and is building up its nuclear and missile potential.”

Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies, said that the key factor behind the lifting of the UN’s sanctions monitoring of North Korea was not only by the rapprochement between Pyongyang and Moscow, but also by growing hostility between the United States and Russia, which “pushed the latter to establish closer ties with North Korea. Their strategic relationships are inherently interconnected. In addition, there is growing criticism in the UN Security Council that the sanctions are useless.”

Maria Zakharova’s second statement was a response to such rhetoric. In addition, Russia pointed out the inadmissibility of such criticisms on the part of the United States, which for the past five months has been blocking UN Security Council resolutions on the situation in the Gaza Strip, thereby covering up the mass deaths of Palestinian civilians caused by Israeli actions.

In turn, the DPRK expressed its gratitude to Russia. As the DPRK’s permanent representative to the UN, Kim Song, said, “we highly appreciate the decision of the Russian Federation to veto the Security Council’s draft resolution on the 1718 Committee.” Kim recalled that Pyongyang has never recognized either the sanctions imposed by the Security Council or the work of the sanctions committee.

Does all this mean the end of the sanctions regime?

Unfortunately not. Of course, the West is stoking fears that “the end of the Expert Panel will encourage North Korea to continue to engage in prohibited acts with impunity and frustrate international efforts to deter growing nuclear and missile threats.” However, Seoul, Washington and other like-minded countries will step up their coordination by imposing individual or multilateral sanctions in order to keep “turning the screws” on Pyongyang. As Kim Eun-hye stated in a briefing, “Despite the suspension of the Panel, we will continue to honor the sanctions against North Korea and make every effort to create an environment in which North Korea has no choice but to refuse to move in the wrong direction.”

Most likely, the panel of experts will simply be replaced. Victor Cha already proposes to fill the vacuum with an “alternative mechanism” involving countries with similar positions on the issue, such as the US, South Korea, Japan, Australia, etc., who will cooperate by sharing information.

Eric Penton-Voak also suggests that as an alternative to the Expert Panel the activities of think tanks and media specializing in the area be stepped up, which could make the enforcement of the sanctions more effective.

The first steps in this direction have already begun. On April 5, 2024, the US State Department stated that “amid the growing need for tighter international cooperation to address North Korean threats following Russia’s recent veto of a resolution on the annual renewal of a UN panel monitoring the enforcement of sanctions against the North” US Senior Official for North Korea Jung Pak will visit Romania, Poland, and Sweden. She will negotiate on challenges from North Korea’s “unlawful nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, malicious cyber activity, and deepening military and political partnership with Russia.”

Some experts, however, are more pessimistic. Frank Aum, a senior expert at the US Institute of Peace, notes that “the termination of the panel further erodes the multilateral sanctions regime against North Korea and forces the United States and other countries to pursue more unilateral, bilateral or monolateral efforts to crack down on North Korea.” In his view, “this scenario represents not just a crisis for advocates of pressure and sanctions against North Korea, but also the broader functioning of the UNSC and the post World War II international order.”

The present author rather agrees with these views. Yes, the UN structure will be replaced by a private shop whose verdicts will be even more biased, but less binding. The US is unlikely to lift the sanctions, considering any movement in this direction ideologically unacceptable. But another deep crack has appeared in the façade of the UN as an independent arbitration institution.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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