UN Panel of Experts: The Final Act

(Source: United States Mission to the United Nations)

The United Nations (UN) Panel of Experts (POE) established under UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1874 published its final report on March 7 of this year. Following the Russian veto of the Council resolution renewing the Panel’s mandate, the finality of that report has to be taken quite literally.

This will be a loss for those interested in the health of the global nonproliferation regime, the state of the UN, and stability on the Korean Peninsula. At a lower level of abstraction, students of sanctions will lose a valuable resource. The Panel left the stage after issuing a thorough report filled with vital information on the sanctions evasion efforts of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) and its international partners. It is easy to see why the Russians killed the Panel. It witnessed too much and had to be silenced. Covering the entirety of the 615-page report would take far more space (and, in some cases, more expertise) than this writer has to cover everything, but this article will attempt to briefly highlight a few of the Panel’s most important findings and implications of the veto.

A Brief Look at the Big Picture

First, the UN’s role in combatting proliferation will be greatly reduced after the March 28 Russian veto. It is important to recall that UNSC sanctions against WMD proliferators are the exception rather than the rule in international affairs. The initial 2006 sanctions resolutions against North Korea and Iran were a breakthrough in Security Council action against violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).[1] In the current geopolitical environment, we will not see their like again. The UNSC debate over the failed POE mandate renewal made clear that the POE was a direct casualty of the rivalry between Russia and Ukraine’s supporters in the West.

Second, UN sanctions against North Korea will not be enforceable. Legally, the sanctions and the 1718 Sanctions Committee remain in place. But, the debate over the POE mandate and the negotiations between Russia, China and the rest of the Council made clear that Russia and China’s ultimate target is the end of sanctions. They held the POE mandate hostage to a provision that would have sunset North Korean sanctions in one year. The report details how Russia and China have blocked enforcement efforts in the past year. Russian and Chinese violations will escalate and will no longer be reported to the Council. The signal will also be read by other potential North Korean partners in sanctions evasion. To the extent North Korea moderated its behavior at all due to sanctions, we can now expect that moderation to cease.

Finally, and perhaps of greatest concern, the great power rivalry exhibited during the New York debate pretty clearly indicates that preventing proliferation is no longer a common interest of the superpowers. This is a reversal of trends in relations between Washington and Moscow that extend back to the early 1960s. Even at their most idiotic levels of rivalry and nuclear paranoia, US and Soviet leaders figured out after the Cuban Missile Crisis that adding additional fingers to the nuclear button was a recipe for uncontrollable catastrophe.[2] Apparently, that particular lesson has been erased from history.

The Report

These large forces—far beyond the ability of the Panel to navigate—were the cause of its demise. But, within the context of its actual mandate to provide the Sanctions Committee and Security Council with professional, unbiased information, the Panel has left the stage on a high note. Were this writer still teaching graduate students, he could unleash an entire seminar room full of them on the annexes of the report alone. The Panel has left us with a fine summary of the state of play of North Korean nuclear and missile development. More importantly, the report is a definitive source on a wide range of North Korean sanctions evasion techniques.

  1. Nuclear and Missile Programs: With regard to North Korea’s nuclear and missile program, the pages of 38 North already cover most of the information in the report. It does provide rather extensive information on missile testing and confirms that the DPRK’s efforts are focused not on creating a “parade ground” force, but rather one suited to nuclear and conventional warfighting. Its detailed discussion of the short-range missile force, including warfighting drills and tests of air bursts for warheads, was of particular note.The panel notes that the DPRK continues to indigenize its sources of key materials and technology but does detail some continued technical bottlenecks for the missile program, which can remain of value for export control officials. The report surveys the better-known DPRK nuclear facilities. It highlights its view that the Experimental Light Water Reactor may be operating, but one is left feeling that there is much more that needs to be known that is simply beyond the Panel’s reach. Twenty-three of the report’s excellent annexes cover elements of the nuclear and missile program. The missile annexes, in particular, will serve as excellent resources.
  2. Sanctions Evasion: The Panel has provided us with a wealth of information on successful DPRK sanctions evasion. It is depressing reading for those of us who worked in the field. Just a few data points from the report are sufficient for an expert to conclude the sanctions have reached a failure point. The DPRK’s chief vulnerability with regard to sanctions is its dependence on oil imports and its need for foreign exchange to deal with its chronic trade deficit. According to the report, Pyongyang has probably overcome both difficulties. UN sanctions cap Pyongyang’s annual import of petroleum. The report details how the DPRK—for the sixth year running—likely breached its annual cap of 500 thousand tons of imports by a factor of two or three by the end of September 2023. North Korean registered tankers made 87 oil delivery runs to North Korean ports during this period. Fifty-five-member states called for action, but were blocked by Russia and China.[3]It also appears as if North Korea’s extensive cybertheft programs have covered a significant fraction of its foreign exchange needs. According to the POE, the DPRK netted approximately $3 billion from 58 suspected cyberattacks on ROK cryptocurrency-related companies over the past six years. It may have acquired $750 million in 2023 alone from 17 other cryptocurrency thefts that the Panel was investigating. Some member states apparently believe this constitutes 50 percent of the country’s foreign income and perhaps 40 percent of the funding for the DPRK’s WMD program.[4] These are alarming numbers, far in excess of what the country earned from past illegal activities (many of which continue). Of course, the POE also noted other continuing activities (foreign workers, arms sales, illegal exports of coal and other minerals, etc.) that continue to earn foreign exchange.
  3. Russia: If one could have any doubt about why the Russians silenced the Panel, they would only have to read the account of merchant vessels Angara and Maria, which were dealt with extensively in the report’s annexes.[5] According to information supplied by member states to the panel, the MV Angara is a known ammunition transport ship. It moved hundreds of 20-foot cargo containers from the port of Rajin in North Korea to the port of Dunay in Russia. The vessel was shown delivering 300 containers that originated in Rajin to a Russian naval facility at Konyushkovo Bay on September 12, 2023. The POE also released supporting information that would indicate the vessel carried explosive cargo as well as information that suggests the cargo was subsequently shipped by rail to a Russian military supply site not far from the front in the Ukrainian conflict.There is no irrefutable direct evidence that the shipments were weapons (we will avoid a smoking gun reference here), but the report leaves one just millimeters away from the conclusion that Russia and North Korea were engaged in a historically large violation of UN Security Council sanctions in the summer and autumn of 2023. Even a regime as immune to embarrassment as Putin’s would probably prefer to dim this particular international spotlight. The Panel should probably just be grateful they could not easily be tossed out of hotel or hospital windows like so many Russian witnesses to Putin’s activities have experienced.

The Panel has paid the price for doing the job it was given by the Security Council. It should be congratulated for doing so. Given the choice between whitewashing the violations of a Permanent Member of the Council or getting canned, it took the honorable course.

Is Anything to be Done?

It is worth considering whether there could be any way to continue the work of something like the Panel outside the framework of the Security Council. True, nothing is going to make sanctions against North Korea effective at this moment, but it would still be valuable to give the world transparency on how matters are developing on North Korea’s WMD proliferation and continued sanctions evasion.

Over the long haul, it was beneficial to the overall nonproliferation regime to maintain this mechanism and this expertise. The Panel’s reports had become increasingly detailed and valuable over time—in part because of increased support from member states. Revelations in the reports did create friction in the gears for sanctions violators and gave even the most committed violators cause for concern.

While an international panel of experts outside the UN context would have no legal authority and might not be able to receive the same level of information from member states, perhaps a network of non-governmental organizations in cooperation with a coalition of supporting governments might find a way to create structure that could continue the work of the Panel.

  1. [1]

    It is true that the UNSC acted even more forcefully against Iraqi WMD programs in UNSCR 687, but this was clearly the byproduct of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait rather than a direct response to proliferation.

  2. [2]

    During the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union quite frequently were stronger in their support for the NPT than many non-nuclear weapon states. Indeed, they initially saw the Treaty as interwoven with their broader strategic rivalry. (To put it bluntly, the Russians wanted to keep German fingers off the button, and the US wanted it kept away from more radical Soviet allies like Castro or Mao.) They also tended to divide the labor in dealing with problem countries. For example, the Soviets provided intelligence information to the US that helped derail a South African nuclear test. The US tended to defer to Moscow on dealing with North Korea through the end of the Reagan administration.

  3. [3]

    United Nations, Security Council, Final Report of the Panel of Experts Submitted Pursuant to Resolution 2680, S/2024/215, March 7, 2024, 70-71 and 142-195, https://undocs.org/S/2024/215.

  4. [4]

    Ibid., 60.

  5. [5]

    Ibid., 277-308.

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