After the President signed H.R. 757 into law, but before the U.N. Security Council approved resolution 2270, sanctions skeptics predicted that the new U.S. law would complicate diplomatic efforts to get China to enforce U.N. sanctions. Events thus far have refuted that view. After the President signed the new law, China, which had inflexibly opposed new U.N. sanctions for weeks, reversed course and voted for the strongest North Korea sanctions resolution so far. Even before China’s official retreat, China’s banks had already begun to freeze North Korean accounts. What explains this shift? The editors of The Washington Post offer this guess:
SECRETARY OF State John F. Kerry emerged frustrated from a meeting with China’s foreign minister in late January after proposing new U.N. sanctions on North Korea. Beijing balked, saying it was not willing to take steps that risked destabilizing the regime of Kim Jong Un even after the regime conducted what it claimed was a hydrogen bomb test. On Wednesday, China seemingly reversed course, joining a unanimous U.N. Security Council in imposing the toughest sanctions applied to North Korea in more than a decade.
What prompted this welcome change? Mr. Kerry and his State Department team spent weeks negotiating with their Chinese counterparts — and North Korea’s launch of a long-range rocket last month over Beijing’s objections may have spurred a U.S.-Chinese convergence. Our guess, however, is that China’s switch had a lot to do with steps taken by South Korea and Congress.
In Seoul, the government of President Park Geun-hye, which Beijing has been courting, decided to move forward on plans for deploying a U.S. missile defense system that China regards as a threat. Meanwhile, Congress adopted new U.S. sanctions that could penalize Chinese companies and banks that do business with North Korea. In other words, the Chinese leadership finally was forced to consider tangible consequences for its coddling of the reckless and increasingly dangerous North Korean ruler.
The result is sanctions that, on paper, could have the most damaging impact in Pyongyang since the George W. Bush administration succeeded in locating and freezing the regime’s foreign financial assets in 2005. The new resolution orders the inspection of all cargoes entering and leaving North Korea, bans its export of some minerals and import of arms, and mandates a shutdown of its international banking activities. It also cuts off supplies of most aviation fuels and expands the list of luxury items the elite cannot receive. [Editorial, Washington Post]
In other words, and as I argued last month, the new U.S. sanctions law actually gave the Obama Administration more leverage to succeed in its diplomacy with China. As I argued last week, U.S. and U.N. sanctions are not contradictory, but complementary and mutually reinforcing. Indeed, the timing of the Chinese banks’ actions suggests they may be more responsive to Washington than they are to Beijing. I can’t overstate my doubts that China has had a willing conversion, and has decided to enforce the spirit and letter of U.N. sanctions. But the evidence increasingly shows that whether or not China’s government can be persuaded to enforce sanctions, its banks and ports can be.