Delaying Tactics: New Sanctions, Still No Strategy

(Photo: UN Photo/Kim Haughton)

On August 5, 2017, the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 2371, imposing a new round of sanctions against North Korea. This resolution was specifically triggered by North Korea’s two July tests of its Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM); but more generally, the resolution is a product of a longstanding approach by the United States and UNSC members to use sanctions as a means of convincing North Korea to halt its nuclear and missile activities.

As I discussed in a June 21 commentary, it is an open question whether anything can convince North Korea to discontinue these activities, given the investment and value North Korean leaders clearly see in these capabilities. But, as I suggested, to be successful, sanctions need to be paired with a credible negotiating effort. Unfortunately, UNSCR 2371 seems more likely to delay the development of just such a strategy. Although the new measures may increase pressure on North Korea, the resolution itself may prove to be counterproductive.

UNSCR 2371, Unpacked

Before considering the place of UNSCR 2371 in the broader context of US strategy, it is worth examining the specific provisions of the resolution. Broadly put, the operative provisions of the resolution would:

  1. Expand the existing sanctions on North Korea’s economy to include a full ban on the export of coal, iron, iron ore, seafood, lead and lead ore;
  2. Expand the list of designated entities and individuals by adding four entities and nine individuals;
  3. Expand sanctions on joint ventures and commercial cooperation with North Korea; and,
  4. Prohibit countries from allowing additional North Korean laborers into their territories.

A fact sheet released by the US Mission to the United Nations (USUN) notes that the cumulative effect of these sanctions would be to deny North Korea “over $1 billion per year of hard currency” and that, in the context of an estimated $3 billion annual export revenue stream, North Korea would find its ability to fund its illicit activities sharply impinged. It is unclear whether the State Department’s estimates take into account the decision China took in the spring to discontinue coal imports, which probably made getting China’s vote to support UNSCR 2371 a bit easier but also lowered the specific damage wrought by this resolution. By the Mission’s own accounting, excluding coal from the analysis drops the particular value of this resolution to less than $700 million in lost annual revenue.

That said, as someone who spent a good bit of time seeking UNSC resolutions against Iran, I recognize that even incremental progress in UNSCRs should be applauded. It is not easy to achieve even modest additional sanctions, especially when targeting allies and trading partners of permanent members of the UNSC. Moreover, since UNSCR 2371 theoretically locks in the sanctions gains of the past year (provided China, especially, complies with its provisions going forward), even if the resolution only preserves the status quo, it still could inflict damage on the North Korean economy over the long haul.

But, as a general point, UNSCR 2371 offers fairly thin gruel. For example, the prohibition on bringing in new North Korean laborers sounds good but offers far less than it would appear. For starters, the provision establishes a cap on North Korean laborers rather than ending the practice. By the language of USUN’s own factsheet, this means that these laborers will continue to “earn revenue for the illicit programs” covered by the UNSC’s new sanctions. Moreover, the language of the resolution does not provide for any kind of specific reporting on the existing number of North Korean laborers in the territory of other states, although it does require all member states to report on their implementation of the resolution. But, country implementation reports are often submitted late and incomplete, if submitted at all. As of August 3, the UNSC reported that only 77 Member States have submitted a report on their implementation of resolution 2321 and 95 Member States have submitted a report on resolution 2270, both of which were adopted in 2016. Without an accurate baseline, a cap can be flouted by sanctions evaders to bring in more workers and it would be impossible for the UNSC Sanctions Committee assigned to the task of monitoring implementation to identify those breaking the rules, much less to punish them.

This brings up another point: the unusual degree to which UNSCR 2371 treats the Sanctions Committee as a separate, political entity that is entrusted with different responsibilities than the UNSC. In multiple paragraphs, the UNSC members threaten the Committee with an expectation of action if the Committee cannot get its act together to identify new goods meriting a ban from export to North Korea or ships that should no longer be permitted to access foreign ports. UNSCR 2371 even identifies a timetable for taking this action. The resolution ignores the fact, however, that the Sanctions Committee is composed of the same 15 governments that form the UNSC. Often, the representatives to this Committee are the same people who sit behind their Ambassadors during sanctions deliberations at the UNSC! In other words, the new UNSC resolution assigns work to their staffs and, if they fail to complete that work, then the permanent representatives to the UN have agreed to work on the problem further. This is all well and good if the problems that emerge are technical or the result of incompetence. But that is highly unlikely to be the case. In my experience, representatives to Sanctions Committees have the political support of their ambassadors before they register their views at the Committee and, if that political decision is serious enough, it won’t change matters at all to re-elevate the deliberations to the UNSC itself. This language appears to be a face-saving solution to an impasse on what items to add, one that—after the timeframes identified in the resolution elapse—can either be safely ignored without much public fanfare or resolved with far more compromise on the part of sanctions advocates than those holding off on new entries to the designation lists.

Where Are We Now?

The delaying tactic of the UNSC on specific designations is a sad comment on the nature of the resolution altogether: it is simply putting off further the need for the United States and other members of the international community to make real decisions about the intent and objectives of the sanctions. This includes decision on what end state the sanctions are intended to achieve, the role of diplomacy in getting there, and what cost the United States is prepared to accept in damage to its economic interests and relationships in the region to make sanctions an effective part of the mix.

Anthony Ruggiero, a former colleague of mine at the State Department and now an expert on North Korea sanctions at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, outlined his concerns with the resolution in a Twitter thread that is worth reading (and touches on some similar points as above). His conclusion, though, is different from mine. He expresses concern that these measures will reduce the incentive and necessity for the Trump administration to commit fully to a sanctions strategy that leverages the full weight of the US economy to put pressure on North Korea. I appreciate and understand that point of view, and think there is merit to it.

While sharing his concerns, however, I arrive at a fundamentally different conclusion: that the adoption of UNSCR 2371 delays the date at which the United States can and should conclude that an intense focus on sanctions as our primary instrument in changing North Korean behavior is no longer helpful. By adopting UNSCR 2371, the Trump administration will buy once more into valuing the procedural and diplomatic victory of the resolution above its specific contribution to a permanent resolution of concerns around North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. This is a beguiling temptation, one that will be reinforced with the praise that the 15-0 decision has been greeted in the foreign policy community; a parallel can be seen in the reaction of this group to the cruise missile strikes in Syria in the spring notwithstanding their similar failure to translate tactical initiative into strategic progress. With North Korea sanctions, the Bush and Obama administrations also succumbed to this confusion, convincing themselves that the progress of the resolution and “toughest yet” sanctions it imposed is the same thing as progress toward a solution.

North Korea has shown in many ways the folly of such thought. Although it is true that sanctions were never fully embraced prior to (and, probably still, as of) this point in time, this judgment is now somewhat immaterial. The North Korean possession of nuclear weapons and an ICBM capable of hitting the mainland United States is not in much doubt, despite years of incremental—if undeniable—improvement in the sanctions regime facing the country. There are questions about North Korea’s possession of a nuclear-capable re-entry vehicle, but this is probably just a matter of time, and perhaps not much time at that. There is very little time for new sanctions measures to bring value into a negotiating context and even less for those sanctions to bring North Korea’s leadership sufficiently to their knees so as to compel concessions not reached at the negotiating table.

When viewed from this lens, my concern is that UNSCR 2371 will convince the Trump team that they are on the right track and that they don’t have to make a tough call on entering real negotiations with North Korea. They can accept the logic that this resolution will make the difference or create a path toward an effective sanctions lever against North Korea. It is a more comfortable approach psychologically and avoids officials having instead to accept the likelihood that the competition with North Korea may have been lost, at least insofar as some of its nuclear and missile capabilities are concerned. In my view, this also means that the Trump team will continue using sanctions as a surrogate for strategy and, inevitably, as a means of avoiding developing one.

Instead, the Trump administration should accept that, having inherited a North Korea that a bipartisan set of presidencies failed to constrain effectively, it is time to cut a deal to keep North Korea to reduce the threat of North Korea’s existing arsenal and to stabilize the peninsula before the situation gets out of hand. North Korea is admittedly not offering much by way of encouragement having underscored that its nuclear and missile capabilities are non-negotiable. That said, other countries have said something similar in the past—Iran included, regarding enrichment—and it is not a given that present resistance to concession and compromise will be carried forward into an actual negotiation.

Rather than condition talks with North Korea, the United States should emphasize its preparedness to meet with the North Koreans, with the content of those talks to be determined by the negotiators. This would also have the benefit of providing the United States with an opportunity to underscore to North Korea its intention to continue hectoring the country so long as it is threatening the United States and its allies, while stressing this is also not the preference of the United States. Ironically, US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, offered some glimpse of a readiness on the part of the United States to consider such an outcome. In her explanation of vote, she noted that, “we want only security and prosperity for all nations—including North Korea.” Given the animosity that exists between the United States and North Korea, this is not a bad place for negotiations to begin.

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