The U.N.’s new North Korea resolution wasn’t worth the wait

Lest anyone think I’m blindly criticizing the Obama administration as it tries to cover its exit and legacy, start with my favorable comments on UNSCR 2270. That resolution might have been the baseline for a genuinely effective global sanctions program, but the text of the new resolution the Security Council will vote on tomorrow arguably lowers the high bar set by 2270. Indeed, because of our independent authority to enforce 2270 in tandem with our allies, we would have been better off with no resolution at all than a weak one.

Although the text contains some useful provisions, including a ban on shipping insurance and the expulsion of North Korean bank operatives, many of the nominally tough provisions are full of loopholes. For example, how many North Korean diplomats must each country expel? What prevents North Korean diplomats, now limited to one bank account each, from simply putting those accounts in the names of “private” trading companies?

The ban on North Korea using real property abroad for non-diplomatic purposes could, depending on how it’s interpreted, require it to shut down the Chilbosan Hotel, its Chinese base of operations for cyberattacks. And anyone who might have fantasized about reopening Kaesong or the success of Rajin should read paragraph 32 carefully.

The veiled threat in paragraph 19 to suspend North Korea’s U.N. privileges is interesting, but ultimately empty. China and Russia would veto any such move.

The new designations in the annexes are weak, mostly consisting of mid-level officials who will be easy to replace. The absence of Air Koryo, the Korea National Insurance Corporation, and Mansudae Overseas Project Group from the list are big disappointments.

But the biggest overall disappointment may be the text’s lack of hard, clear, enforceable follow-the-money provisions. There is no new requirement for member states to track and report beneficial ownership by North Korean nationals, which would have been a potential windfall of financial intelligence on North Korean money laundering and sanctions evasion.

Many of the provisions — such as the ban on dual-use items, helicopters, and technical assistance — were already prohibited under any reasonable interpretation of UNSCR 2270. Russia, India, and other states have violated those prohibitions.

The addition of two items — rugs and china — to the luxury goods list is laughable.

The most talked-about provision, the new cap on North Korean coal exports, will be difficult to monitor and enforce. How will the U.N. Panel of Experts really know what minerals China is importing, in what volumes, or at what prices? Even if they are enforced, the cuts in coal exports are not deep enough to create the kind of financial crisis in Pyongyang that will force it to reconsider its nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang exports $1 billion worth of coal in a typical year. This text would cut that amount in half. If you’d asked me in March to guess what “livelihood purposes” means, I’d have said it sets a much lower cap than what the Chinese extracted from us. (Update: Also, I’d have said that for “livelihood purposes” to be anything but a farce — a license to cheat, really — it would have required the Chinese to pay the North Koreans in food instead of dollars. But now, Pyongyang and Beijing can safely conspire to starve the North Korean people, while using the profits of their trade to terrorize Koreans on both sides of the DMZ.) Arguably, the Chinese won the right to sell North Korea more coal than we’d have allowed to pass through our financial system under the new U.S. sanctions law and executive order. For the sake of getting China to sign another piece of paper, we threw away that leverage.

Meanwhile, most of North Korea’s other revenue sources are untouched by any enforceable provisions (the text merely expresses “concern” about North Korea’s slave labor exports). A modest exception is a ban on the sale of North Korean crew services.

What hovers over all of this is that Chinese banks and businesses — encouraged by Beijing — have willfully and persistently cheated on the sanctions right up to this very minute. The new resolution would not have restated UNSCR 2270’s requirement to inspect checked baggage and cargo at land borders if China has not failed to enforce those provisions to begin with.

What’s needed much more than new measures is a stark demonstration to Chinese banks, businesses, and ports that those who cheat will suffer the same fate as Banco Delta Asia and Dandong Hongxiang. President Obama has decided to sacrifice the greater need, which is enforcement, for a lesser need, a new resolution. To the very last, this administration’s North Korea policy is much more tongue than tooth. At such moments, I sympathize with Donald Trump’s criticism that this administration doesn’t excel at negotiation. We’ll soon see if he can do any better.

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