Russian veto points to 'grim future' for North Korea sanctions enforcement


Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during their meeting at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Amur region on Sept. 13, 2023.

Vladimir Smirnov | Afp | Getty Images

Russia’s move to effectively disband the panel of experts monitoring longstanding United Nations sanctions against North Korea points to a “grim future” for the sanctions enforcement, three former members of the panel told Reuters.

Russia vetoed the annual renewal of the multinational panel of experts on Thursday, which has spent the last 15 years monitoring U.N. sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

China, North Korea’s only military ally and its largest trading partner, abstained. Beijing and Moscow have denied breaking sanctions but have blocked new measures at the UN Security Council and advocated lifting some existing sanctions on North Korea, blaming the West and its allies for exacerbating tensions.

Diplomats said it appeared unlikely there would be another vote to try to renew the mandate before it expires on April 30.

The veto highlights a rare diplomatic dividend for Pyongyang and underlines its deepening ties with Moscow, which have included unprecedented shipments of ballistic missiles and ammunition for use in the war in Ukraine as well as possible fuel supplies for North Korea, according to U.S. and South Korean officials and independent analysts.

Both Moscow and Pyongyang have denied arms deals, but have vowed to deepen military relations and Russia’s spy chief visited North Korea this week to vow a united front against “attempts to increase pressure from external forces.”

The vote was significant and represents a major turning point in the international sanctions regime against North Korea, said Aaron Arnold, a former member of the panel who now works as a sanctions expert at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

“Russia’s vote, along with its blatant violation of sanctions by buying conventional arms from North Korea, years long history of ignoring their obligations, and at least tacit support from China suggest that the future is grim for the DPRK sanctions regime,” he said, using the initials of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Puzzle pieces

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia criticized the experts’ work, saying before the vote that its reports had been reduced to “playing into the hands of Western approaches, reprinting biased information and analyzing newspaper headlines and poor quality photos.”

Even the panel’s backers acknowledge that its work was increasingly constrained, but blamed it on Chinese and Russian members blocking or obfuscating unfavorable findings.

“The latest report is very interesting, because although it goes into some useful detail on finance and on overseas workers, China is barely mentioned,” said one former senior member who asked not to be named because of diplomatic sensitivities. “If you’re talking about breaching the sanctions, and not mentioning China, that’s not really a terribly accurate reflection of what is really going on.”

While the panel reports looked like a comprehensive summary, they were more like a small part of a larger puzzle, often with some of the most important pieces left out, the former member said.

The end of the panel could lead to more trilateral cooperation among Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, and more evidence of sanctions violations could be released to the public since the restraining influence Russia and China had over headline-generating reports will be gone with the UN panel of experts, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

Because global banks and insurance companies have come to rely on independent reports to freeze and close accounts associated with North Korean overseas sanctions evasion networks, continued reporting mechanisms will be found, said Hugh Griffiths, former head of the panel and now a sanctions consultant.

Deeper Russia-North Korea ties

Griffiths said the veto suggests Russia does not want its illegal procurement of North Korean ballistic missiles and conventional artillery munitions to be reported by a UN Security Council body.

“Russia’s veto indicates that Putin will intensify his ballistic missile and embargo-busting cooperation with North Korea,” he said.

The vote illustrates how strong the ties between Russia-North Korea have become, said Jenny Town of 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea monitoring program.

“It underscores that no new sanctions at the UN Security Council level should be expected in the current geopolitical environment, and the bigger burden on states now to handle sanctions monitoring efforts,” she said.

The United States and South Korea launched a new task force this week aimed at preventing North Korea from procuring illicit oil, particularly from Russia.

The two countries also imposed unilateral sanctions on individuals and entities based in Russia, China and the United Arab Emirates, accusing them of channeling funds to Pyongyang’s weapons programs.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North, called the vote “extremely regrettable.”

Most visible sanctions enforcement has already been headed by the United States and its partners, sometimes in conflict with China or Russia.

Canada accused Chinese jets of “recklessly” harassing its surveillance planes taking part in an U.N. operation to enforce sanctions against North Korea. Beijing called the Canadian flights “provocative.”



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