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KEI Spotlight

[Op-ed] What comes after UN Panel of Experts?

May 8, 2024

This article was published in The Korea Times on May 8, 2024.

On April 30, the mandate for the U.N. Panel of Experts on North Korea expired, leaving the international community without an international mechanism to monitor North Korean sanctions evasion. Developing a new tool to monitor and enforce U.N. sanctions on North Korea is important, but sanctions enforcement faces challenges beyond Russia’s decision to veto a renewal of the panel’s mandate.

Russia’s decision to end the panel’s mandate is easy to understand. Moscow needs North Korean artillery to win its war against Ukraine, a significant sanctions violation in itself, and had lost interest in the continuation of a U.N. panel tasked with monitoring and reporting its own growing list of sanctions violations. These include providing North Korea with access to the international financial system, the transfer of military technology, the continued use of North Korean labor and likely transfers of petroleum in excess of U.N. limits.

While the war in Ukraine may have been the proximate reason for Russia to end the panel, its primary motivation predates the war.

With the panel’s mandate now expired, former panel members are beginning to describe some of the challenges they faced while serving on the panel, going back years. According to former panel member Eric Penton-Voak in a recent article for 38 North, one of these challenges was that neither Russia nor China has shown interest in maintaining or enforcing sanctions on North Korea since 2019.

This suggests a strategic shift by China and Russia after the failure of the Hanoi summit and the formal breakdown of talks in Stockholm between the United States and North Korea in October 2019. The deterioration in relations between China and the United States likely also played a factor, at least in China’s shift.

The decisions by Russia and China to not enforce sanctions against North Korea severely weakened the sanctions regime. Now, a failure to develop a new system for monitoring and enforcing sanctions would essentially hand Beijing and Moscow, likely the two largest sanctions violators, the ability to unilaterally eviscerate international sanctions.

The primary question is how to move forward, knowing that broader geopolitics are unlikely to change in the near future. Because Russia and China have now spent years undermining sanctions, any new efforts to monitor and enforce sanctions must be outside of the U.N. structure and without their involvement.

While Russia and China will complain of bias, allowing them to be part of any new process would be the equivalent of having the accused run the investigation into their crimes.

Because Russia and China will not want any new sanctions enforcement grouping to have validity, the United States, South Korea and other states supportive of the U.N. sanctions regime will need to prepare to combat both disinformation, a key component of any Russian strategy, and likely economic coercion on smaller states to dissuade them from cooperating.

The United States will need to be willing to do something it has not done in the past — place significant sanctions on China related to North Korea. In a talk with the North Korea Economic Forum, for which I am a member of the steering committee, Penton-Voak also pointed out one key aspect of sanctions enforcement that could help avoid escalation. Ultimately, sanctions evasion requires illicit actors to be able to move money within the financial system. Most banks and firms do not want to be caught on the wrong side of the law. It would require long and patient work, but highlighting for banks and firms their connections to illicit North Korean activities would cut off points of access for North Korea.

Cutting off North Korean access, however, will be challenging. First, not all firms North Korea deals with in Russia and China have international operations, but those that do will be more vulnerable, even those in China. Major Chinese banks, for example, are cutting off payments for transactions that could fall afoul of U.S. sanctions on Russia, making it increasingly difficult for Chinese firms to supply Russia with the parts it needs to build weapons. The second difficulty, however, is that Russia and China hope to build payment systems outside the reach of the United States. Over time, these new systems could become central to North Korean financial flows.

Developing a new system to monitor and enforce U.N. sanctions on North Korea remains critical to slowing its weapons development. North Korean ballistic missiles found on the battlefield in Ukraine have contained parts produced in major developed economies in the last few years, demonstrating the need to disrupt North Korea’s sanctions evasion better and limit the regime’s ability to gain access to the technology it needs to advance its programs. However, with Russia and China willing to countenance sanctions evasion, a new system will need to be developed that excludes them from monitoring and holds Moscow and Beijing accountable.