On Saturday August 5th, the United Nations Security Council unanimously voted to impose economic sanctions on North Korea, in response to the country’s missile tests over the past two months.
The resolution aims to cut one third of the country’s $3 billion annual revenue by banning exports such as coal, iron ore, lead, lead ore and seafood.
Additionally, the sanctions place restrictions on North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank, and prohibits the country from exporting its citizens to work abroad for the benefit of the government.
The resolution, overall, is a stroke of definitive action in a time when the world seems unsure of how to deal with the belligerence of the Kim regime.
For example, in response to North Korea’s last two missile tests, the US implored China to take action against the country, increased military exercises in the region, and deployed a THAAD anti-missile defense system in South Korea.
None of these actions, of course, have convinced North Korea to halt its missile program, or cease to threaten the Korean peninsula and the US. The new sanctions, however, strike at North Korea’s main sources of income- coal and mineral exports to China- and leaves Pyongyang with less ability to finance its missile program.
As North Korea’s largest trading partner, the efficacy of the resolution lies with China’s ability to adhere to its terms. Past economic sanctions against Pyongyang’s exports have largely failed, in part because China has chosen not to honor them.
In April, China reported that imports of iron ore, zinc and other minerals from North Korea were up 270 percent in early 2017. This indicates that while China stands by the resolution as a member of the UN Security Council, it is not certain that Beijing will follow the sanctions.
As a result, the US must address Beijing’s concerns with the resolution to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
China’s main concern with the resolution is a weak and unstable North Korea. As North Korea’s largest economic partner, one of China’s primary reasons for trading with Pyongyang is to keep the country from collapsing.
If North Korea were to fall, China would be directly impacted by a refugee crisis and an emboldened South Korea. As of now, much of North Korea’s population is vulnerable to chronic food and nutrition insecurity and early childhood malnutrition, with the country ranking 98th out of 118 countries in the 2016 Global Hunger Index.
With increased UN economic sanctions, North Korea will become more isolated from the world’s markets. This leaves the country with less access to resources, and its population at further risk of starvation. If North Korea fails, millions of its citizens would likely rush across the porous border with China, leaving Beijing to weather a dire refugee crisis.
A weakened North Korea would provide China with another problem: a hegemonic Korean peninsula controlled by Seoul. Should the conflict over North Korea’s missile program result in armed invasion, and subsequent fall of Pyongyang, South Korea would likely assume control over the peninsula. This reduces Chinese influence in the region, and increases American power alongside South Korea- an outcome unacceptable to Beijing.
In all, the latest UN action against North Korea is a significant step toward pacifying the rogue nation. But China’s economic relationship with North Korea, and its tendency to ignore UN resolutions, means Beijing will dictate whether the sanctions are successful or not.
That said, the US should provide diplomatic assurances to China to successfully implement the sanctions.
First, the US government should coordinate with Beijing to ensure that humanitarian aid is being delivered to North Korea, or ready in the case of Pyongyang’s fall. Since North Korea has refused US aid in the past, China may use its trade relationship with the Kim regime to immediately start providing aid to the country, while also making preemptive plans to mollify any humanitarian crisis stemming from war in the peninsula.
Secondly, the US should begin to back away from its ‘One Korea’ policy, which dates back to the 1953 armistice. At this point, the policy is outdated and untenable, as South Korea may not want to absorb North Korea’s entire populace, and the disruption of Pyongyang’s fall would create disorder that could not quelled with immediacy or ease.
Even more, abandoning the One Korea policy puts the onus of pacifying North Korea on China. Should Beijing be unsuccessful in handling the Kim regime, the US would have a stronger basis for increasing military presence in the area.
Overall, given the danger posed by North Korea’s nuclear program, China’s interest in the Korean peninsula must be addressed to ensure that Beijing honors the resolution by ceasing trade with North Korea.
To take an opposite, or hard-line, stance toward China in the North Korean crisis only emboldens Pyongyang, and places the world at risk of nuclear war.