The United Nations Security Council’s unanimous vote to widen sanctions on North Korea is a welcome signal that world powers are united in their exasperation with Pyongyang but still hold out hope of bringing Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table. The sanctions will limit oil exports and ban textile exports entirely. In an attempt to curb smuggling, the resolution calls on states to inspect ships suspected of carrying North Korean goods.
A range of stronger measures initially demanded by the United States, including a full ban on oil exports and a travel ban or asset freeze on Kim, were dropped so as to secure Chinese and Russian support. A provision that would have allowed the use of military force against ships suspected of transporting North Korean goods was also removed. Russia is sceptical about the effectiveness of sanctions on a regime that shows so little regard for the welfare of its own people, while Beijing fears that harsher penalties could cause the North Korean state to collapse – a scenario that could send a wave of refugees into China or bring US forces to the Chinese border.
Sanctions are designed to persuade Kim to renounce his nuclear arsenal. But Pyongyang has been under UN sanctions since 2006, so they plainly have not worked. The security council is split between states that believe the regime is simply impervious to sanctions and those that argue that harsher penalties are required. Both views rely heavily on guesswork about a closed regime. More important is the fact that sanctions can only work when used in tandem with other tactics, such as military pressure and an attractive offer. In the case of Iran, the Obama White House offered trade and the promise of economic renewal.
The problem is that even though Donald Trump is edging towards a strategy not unlike Obama’s on Iran, he also continues to call for a scrapping of the Iran deal – even though the UN and his own government consistently certify full Iranian compliance. In doing so, Trump is actively undermining any chance of success not only on Iran but on North Korea as well.