On December 22 2017 the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed Resolution 2397 unanimously (15-0), which imposed new, harsher economic sanctions on North Korea. The Resolution was led and drafted by the US, and the vote by the UNSC came four days after the US publicly declared that it believed North Korea was responsible for the Wannacry cyberattack in May.
What do the new sanctions entail?
The primary outcome of these new sanctions are a strangling of North Korea’s energy supplies, tightened restrictions on smuggling and restrictions on overseas North Korean workers. The sanctions cut exports of gasoline, diesel and other refined oil products to North Korea by 89%. Petrol products will be capped at 500,000 barrels per year and crude oil will be capped at four million barrels per year. Resolution 2397 also bans exports of industrial equipment, machinery, transportation vehicles and industrial metals. Countries using North Korean workers (primarily Russia) must repatriate them no later than two years after Resolution 2397 has passed. The Resolution also requires countries to stop supplying North Korea illegally through ship-to-ship transfers―this is interesting because Russia has recently been accused of doing this post-Resolution 2397.
Although Resolution 2397 is unusual in that it has the backing of both China and Russia, this did not come without concessions from the US. America originally wanted a one-year deadline for countries to repatriate their North Korean workers, but Russia managed to extend this to two years. Despite this, US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, claimed these sanctions were the “toughest yet.”
How do they compare to previous sanctions?
Recently, the UN levied sanctions against North Korea in August and September of this year, and the US took unilateral steps against North Korea in July, August, September, October and November. In August, the UNSC blocked exports of North Korean coal, iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore and seafood and in September it called for inspections of ships going in and out of North Korea’s ports. Overall, Washington has been imposing sanctions on Pyongyang since 2008―freezing the assets of individuals and companies linked to its nuclear programme. There have so far been ten Security Council resolutions imposing economic sanctions on North Korea.
Will the new sanctions work?
Obviously the precedent surrounding economic sanctions on North Korea hasn’t been too successful. A deadly cocktail of Kim caring little for his citizenry and the constant undermining of UN sanctions by Russia and China severely stunt their effectiveness. Although Russia and China reluctantly supported the sanctions this time, their interests lie in maintaining the Kim regime as a communist buffer zone against the West because if it were to fall there is a risk American troops will be stationed on the northern part of the Korean peninsula, bordering China and Russia.
This assistance from two leading actors on the international stage therefore provides little scope for much impact. The White House has stated that it believes it is running out of sanction options and the CIA believes no amount of economic sanctions will cause Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear programme. Not the best of news. There is the risk North Korea will push the US into taking preemptive military action against it, gambling whether Russia and China will actually support Pyongyang if war broke out. However, Russia and China do not necessarily need to be directly involved in such a conflict, taking the role of merely providing North Korea with military resources instead. Like the Korean War to some extent.
How will North Korea respond?
It is unlikely North Korea will respond to these sanctions substantially. In the most likely circumstances, it seems the brinkmanship of North Korea will continue as normal with little action, except diplomatically. More ICBM and nuclear tests are to be expected, further pushing boundaries like firing missiles over Japan and rabble-rousing in South Korea; though nothing of great effect will happen. North Korea is the sovereign embodiment of a Napoleon complex. They want to provoke tension on the international stage, taking advantage of the historical belligerence between capitalist and communist countries, but do not want to push so far as to actually cause a military response. Indeed, the rhetoric from North Korea has not calmed down as it claimed the new economic sanctions will only serve to further accelerate its nuclear programme.
Overall, 2018 will most likely yield more of the same in terms of North Korea’s actions. Pushing boundaries, but being very careful not to overstep the mark far enough to bring about regime change. On the international stage, it is not Pyongyang’s actions that will be surprising and interesting, rather, with the unpredictability and nuclear button bragging presidency of Donald Trump it will be Washington’s. With economic sanctions nearing exhaustion and North Korea getting closer to developing the capability to easily strike mainland America with nuclear weapons, 2018 will be the year to look at America’s foreign policy, and if the North Korea situation can be resolved without military action.