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May 19, 2021
UN Tightens North Korea Sanctions

Peter Crail

The UN Security Council last month broadly expanded sanctions and counterproliferation measures against North Korea in response to that country's May 25 nuclear test.

Resolution 1874, which the council unanimously adopted June 12, builds on the measures the council took in 2006 when it adopted Resolution 1718 in response to North Korea's first nuclear test.

U.S. officials said that there is greater focus on enforcing sanctions this time around. The international community did not use all of the measures available under Resolution 1718 because North Korea re-entered denuclearization talks shortly after that resolution was adopted.

Stephen Bosworth, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee June 11 that "as we move forward, we are going to continue to be very concerned about implementation [of the renewed sanctions], and I would expect that other countries will be as well."

The 34-paragraph resolution features an intensified inspection regime to prevent proliferation to and from North Korea, calls for enhanced financial restrictions against North Korea and North Korean firms, a nearly comprehensive arms embargo on the country, and strengthened council oversight over the implementation of the resolution (see sidebar). The council also reiterated demands that Pyongyang not conduct any further nuclear or missile tests, return to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and verifiably abandon all nuclear programs.

The council agreed on a number of provisions intended to strengthen the implementation of sanctions against North Korea. But, at the urging of China and Russia, some of those provisions were turned from requirements into recommendations, diplomatic sources said in June. In particular, the resolution "calls on" states to enact a number of financial restrictions against North Korea as well as carry out inspections of suspected shipments that violate the sanctions, rather than making such steps mandatory.

The resolution also calls on states to take more extensive measures to limit financial dealings with North Korea and North Korean entities. Although Resolution 1718 required that states freeze the assets of North Korean entities blacklisted by the council, Resolution 1874 recommended similar actions against any North Korean assets within their jurisdiction if those assets could contribute to Pyongyang's nonconventional weapons programs. The council also called for states to withhold public financial support for trade with North Korea that could aid such programs.

In support of these financial restrictions, the U.S. Department of the Treasury issued an advisory June 18 recommending that U.S. financial institutions take "commensurate risk mitigation measures," in light of the financial restrictions called for by Resolutions 1718 and 1874. The Treasury Department stated that there is an "increased likelihood" that North Korean financial institutions will use deceptive practices to circumvent sanctions and urged "enhanced scrutiny" over North Korean accounts and transactions.

Diplomatic sources said in June that such recommendations had little relevance for U.S. financial institutions, which do not generally do business with North Korea, but may have an impact if banks in Asia and Europe move to follow suit.

The new resolution also calls for "adjustments" to the items and North Korean entities falling under the sanctions. Baki Ilkin, Turkish permanent representative to the United Nations and chair of the Security Council's 1718 Committee, told reporters June 19 that he received lists from some countries regarding additional North Korean entities to blacklist.

Resolution 1718 called for the council to designate entities suspected of involvement with North Korea's nonconventional weapons programs. However, no entities were placed on the committee's blacklist until last April, when the council responded to a North Korean rocket launch. (See ACT, May 2009.) At that time, the council sanctioned three North Korean firms from lists of 11 firms provided by Washington and 14 by Tokyo.

Addressing the issue of enforcement, the council called on states to take additional steps to inspect shipments suspected of violating the sanctions on North Korea. Such steps include the potential for inspecting vessels on the high seas with the consent of the flag state of the ship in question and providing the legal authority to seize and dispose of any materials or weapons found. Resolution 1874 also requires that states not provide "bunkering services," such as fuel or other supplies, to North Korean vessels suspected of violating sanctions.

William Newcomb, a former senior economic adviser to the Intelligence and Analysis Office at the Treasury Department, told a United States Institute of Peace audience June 10 that North Korean ships are fairly small and cannot travel far without refueling.

Although the resolution raises the possibility of stranding suspect North Korean vessels, it does not provide for the forcible boarding of ships that refuse inspections. China in particular insisted that such forcible boarding not be permitted. Following the adoption of Resolution 1874, Chinese Permanent Representative to the UN Zhang Yesui told reporters that states must "act prudently and with sufficient grounds" with regard to cargo inspections and "under no circumstances should there be the use of force, or the threat of the use of force."

North Korea has said that it would view attempts to board its ships as an act of war.

It appears that the United States intends to refrain from forcing such inspections. Diplomatic sources told Arms Control Today in June that, in spite of the prospect of high-seas interdiction raised in Resolution 1874, U.S. enforcement of the sanctions will still rely primarily on cooperation from states in the region to carry out inspections.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell appeared to hint at this cooperation during a June 24 press briefing, stating that the United States would not make a decision to confront suspicious ships alone. "[T]hat is a decision I think we will likely take collectively with our allies and partners out there," he said.

Morrell was responding to questions regarding a North Korean ship, the Kang Nam, that the United States had been tracking. He said the ship "has a particular history that makes it more of interest" but stressed that the United States has been "interested in North Korean ships for some time." Morrell appeared to be referring to past suspicions that the Kang Nam was involved in proliferation from North Korea.

North Korea Rejects Resolution

North Korea reacted to Resolution 1874 by issuing a Foreign Ministry statement June 13 condemning the UN action and outlining "countermeasures" Pyongyang would take, including the development of a uranium-enrichment program.

The statement was the first time that North Korea has publicly admitted to pursuing a uranium-enrichment program. The United States has long suspected North Korea of maintaining such an effort as a second route to nuclear weapons, and the issue was critical in the 2002 collapse of a 1994 denuclearization agreement between Washington and Pyongyang. (See ACT, November 2002.) Pyongyang reportedly agreed to address those suspicions last year in six-way negotiations as part of a secret side document. (See ACT, May 2008.)

Uranium enrichment can be used to produce low-enriched fuel for nuclear power plants or high-enriched material that can serve as the explosive core in nuclear weapons.

The June 13 statement claimed that North Korea would be pursuing uranium enrichment to provide fuel for a light-water reactor it intended to construct. North Korea said it has been working on developing this capability and that "enough success has been made in developing uranium enrichment technology to provide nuclear fuel" for such reactors.

The other steps Pyongyang said it would take in response to the UN measure included weaponizing all newly separated plutonium and meeting "an attempted blockade of any kind" with "a decisive military response."

Following the Security Council's condemnation of North Korea's rocket launch in April, Pyongyang stated that it would reprocess the spent fuel from its Yongbyon reactor, estimated to contain enough plutonium for one or two additional nuclear weapons. (See ACT, May 2009.) North Korea shut down that reactor as part of a February 2007 aid-for-denuclearization agreement. (See ACT, March 2007.) The June 13 statement said that North Korea has reprocessed "more than one third" of this material.

Moreover, Pyongyang also sought to dispel the notion that it would denuclearize, stating that "[i]t has become an absolutely impossible option" for North Korea "to even think about giving up its nuclear weapons."

Following through on a pledge made earlier this year, Pyongyang also appears to be readying a test of a long-range ballistic missile. The Japanese newspaper Daily Yomiuri reported July 18 that North Korea is preparing a launch of its longest-ranged missile, the Taepo Dong-2, in the direction of Hawaii.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters June 18 that the United States has deployed certain missile defense assets in response to a potential missile test. "We do have some concerns if [North Korea] were to launch a missile in the direction of Hawaii," he said.

The deployments include transferring additional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missiles to Hawaii and sending the sea-based X-band radar, which has been docked at Pearl Harbor since 2007 for maintenance and upgrades, into the Pacific Ocean. THAAD missiles are designed to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles during their final flight phase while the X-band radar is intended to track incoming warheads and single them out from decoys.

UN Security Council Resolution 1874 on North Korea

The UN Security Council last month unanimously adopted Resolution 1874 condemning North Korea's second nuclear test. The June 12 resolution expands on the sanctions and inspection provisions contained in Resolution 1718, which the council adopted in 2006 in response to Pyongyang's first nuclear test. Both resolutions were adopted under Article 41 of the UN Charter, which authorizes the Security Council to take nonmilitary punitive actions against a state. The following is a summary of the key additions in Resolution 1874, in which the Security Council:

  • Prohibits North Korea from exporting:

1) any arms or related materiel, or providing financial transactions, technical training, services, or assistance related to such arms; and

2) all items on an expanded Nuclear Suppliers Group trigger list and dual-use materials and technologies list, as well as any technical training, advice, or other services related to them.

  • Prohibits states from procuring the above items or related assistance from North Korea.
  • Decides that states shall not supply, directly or indirectly, any of the above arms or items or relevant services to North Korea, with the exception of small arms and light weapons.
  • Calls on states to "exercise vigilance" over the supply of small arms and light weapons to North Korea and requires states to notify the Security Council's North Korea sanctions committee (the 1718 Committee) at least five days prior to any such sale or transfer.
  • Calls on states to inspect all cargo to and from North Korea in their territory, including seaports and airports, as well as ships on the high seas, with the consent of the flag state, if the state "has information that provides reasonable grounds to believe" that the cargo contains items prohibited by Resolutions 1718 and 1874.
  • Calls on states to cooperate with inspections and, if the flag state does not consent to inspection on the high seas, to require the flag state to direct the vessel to the nearest port for required inspection by local authorities.
  • Authorizes states to seize and dispose of items prohibited under Resolutions 1718 and 1874 that are identified in any inspections.
  • Requires states to report to the 1718 Committee any inspections, seizures, and disposals of cargo that are conducted as part of the resolution's implementation.
  • Requires states to prohibit the provision of bunkering services, including fuel, supplies, or any other servicing of vessels, to North Korean vessels if the states "have information that provides reasonable grounds to believe" the vessels are transporting items prohibited by Resolutions 1718 and 1874. Services that are necessary on humanitarian grounds are exempt from this requirement.
  • Calls on states not to provide financial services or allow the transfer to, through, or from their jurisdiction any assets or resources that could contribute to North Korea's nonconventional weapons programs. Such steps may include freezing assets within their jurisdiction associated with such programs and "applying enhanced monitoring to prevent all such transactions," consistent with the countries' national laws. Also calls on states not to provide public financial support for trade with North Korea that could contribute to such programs, including granting export credits, guarantees, or insurance.
  • Calls on states and international financial and credit institutions "not to enter into new commitments for grants, financial assistance, or concessional loans" to North Korea "except for humanitarian and developmental purposes directly addressing the needs of the civilian population."
  • Calls on states to report to the council within 45 days on steps taken to implement the sanctions in Resolutions 1718 and 1874.
  • Requests that the UN secretary-general create a panel of up to seven experts to assist in the work of the 1718 Committee, including by analyzing information provided by states and providing recommendations on actions the council or states may consider to improve implementation.