December 1, 2017 | Policy Brief

U.S. Calls for Oil Ban and Complete Diplomatic Isolation of North Korea

December 1, 2017 | Policy Brief

U.S. Calls for Oil Ban and Complete Diplomatic Isolation of North Korea

The United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting Wednesday following North Korea’s third intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the thirteenth meeting of the Security Council this year. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley called for the body to isolate Pyongyang and increase pressure on it by banning the sale of oil to North Korea and severing all diplomatic ties. Diplomatic isolation is an important and effective means of increasing pressure, but a stronger case can now be made for the U.S. to also pursue a ban on Chinese oil exports to North Korea in tandem with robust financial sanctions.

Haley called on all countries to sever diplomatic relations with North Korea and suggested Pyongyang should have its UN rights, privileges, and voting powers taken away. She praised Mexico, Peru, Italy, Spain, Kuwait, Portugal, and the United Arab Emirates for expelling North Korean ambassadors and suspending diplomatic relations. 

The National Committee on North Korea notes that Pyongyang operates 42 embassies worldwide. North Korea’s foreign embassies have an established record of serving as fronts for illicit activity and sanctions evasion. For instance, a North Korean front company working out of the country’s embassy in Beijing attempted to sell lithium-6 to unidentified buyers in 2016. The front company was serving as an intermediary for the U.S.- and UN-sanctioned North Korean company Green Pine, which plays a key role in weapons sales abroad. Lithium-6 plays an important role in nuclear weapons development but also has civilian uses. Another example of impropriety is North Korea’s embassy in Poland, which hosts 40 businesses that pay rent directly to the North Korean embassy, including a pharmaceutical company, yacht club, and advertising agencies. 

In addition to calling for the severance of diplomatic relations, Haley urged the Security Council to cut off North Korea’s crude oil imports, since the “main driver of its nuclear production is oil.” Imposing a ban on this crucial resource could deliver a significant blow to North Korea and serve as a key element of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy. The key to a crude oil ban is Beijing, which is Pyongyang’s main oil supplier. In the past, China has expressed concerns about robust sanctions, such as an oil ban, creating instability in North Korea. The Trump administration will need to pressure China to agree to the ban and actually implement it. Indeed, Beijing has agreed to previous UN restrictions but failed to fully implement them.

A crude oil ban could certainly negatively impact North Korean citizens. That is why Washington should only pursue one if it plans on continuing financial sanctions, including those targeting Chinese banks that help North Korea evade sanctions and fund its nuclear weapons and missile programs. Beijing’s strategic priority is continuous economic development, which suggests it will bend to pressure threatening its financial institutions. 

Diplomatic isolation fits well into the Trump administration’s maximum pressure strategy that will strengthen the economic pressure of U.S. and UN sanctions. The U.S. and likeminded allies (South Korea, Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany) should lead by example to collectively pressure, isolate, and deter Pyongyang, including coordination of sanctions efforts and increased interdiction of North Korean-linked vessels. 

Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, where Mathew Ha is a research associate. Anthony was the nonproliferation advisor to the U.S. delegation to the 2005 rounds of the Six-Party Talks and spent more than 17 years in the U.S. government. Follow both on Twitter @_ARuggiero and @Matjunsuk.

 Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.

Note: This Policy Brief was revised and updated on December 4th.


North Korea