October 21, 2020 | Insight

Russia and China Obstruct UN Reporting on North Korea

October 21, 2020 | Insight

Russia and China Obstruct UN Reporting on North Korea

At its annual military parade this month, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) unveiled what may be the world’s largest road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) as well as a new submarine-launched ballistic missile. While experts cannot establish for certain the operability and characteristics of Pyongyang’s new missiles, one reality is clear: North Korea continues to outfit its weapons programs in violation of UN sanctions.

Russia and China not only are the most prolific violators of international sanctions against North Korea; they also hinder UN reporting of that fact. Moscow and Beijing use their UN Security Council (UNSC) seats to obstruct the work of a North Korea investigatory group formally known as a “Panel of Experts,” which the UNSC established in 2009 to inform its Resolution 1718 Sanctions Committee, named for the decision that imposed wide-ranging restrictions on North Korea in response to its nuclear and ICBM tests. As a result of interference from Moscow and Beijing, the panel faces constant impediments to its work. The United States and likeminded nations should hold Russia and China accountable for their obstruction and, if necessary, use alternative means to report sanctions violations.

For the past several years, according to former representatives to the North Korea panel, Moscow and Beijing have demanded the panel strip out of its reports information about Russia’s and China’s ongoing violations of sanctions.

Despite agreeing to the UN resolutions, both Moscow and Beijing egregiously violate the bans and caps to which they committed. As recently as 2019 and 2020, Russia and China conducted or permitted illegal financial transactions with North Korea, exported oil and petroleum to North Korea above allowed limits, permitted North Korean labor and businesses on their territories, and purchased North Korean coal and sand, among other infractions.

In addition, Moscow and Beijing blocked publication of the Panel of Experts’ 2018 midterm report and have regularly delayed the release of the panel’s biannual reports. An official familiar with panel deliberations in 2020 stated that Russia and China either do not respond to the panel’s inquiries or dismiss them altogether, particularly those containing clear evidence of prohibited petroleum exports to North Korea or illicit financial activities with a North Korean nexus.

Moreover, the Russian and Chinese experts on the panel frequently act as surrogates for their capitals rather than as impartial investigators and demand the removal of incriminating information from reports. This has resulted in a much shorter report on average (20,000 words versus 8,000 words, according to NK News), with reduced information about both ongoing investigations and new violations. The omitted material includes findings about North Korea’s continued illicit procurement of dual-use equipment for its weapons programs, for example, which it frequently carries out via China. Increasingly, report annexes tell a more detailed story about sanctions violations, since Moscow and Beijing are more likely to compromise over the annexes’ inclusion of member state and panel letters, reports, documentation, and satellite imagery.

Negotiations over what to include in the panel reports have reportedly become so “fierce,” according to the official with knowledge of the current situation, that it is surprising when the Sanctions Committee – which operates by consensus – is able to release reports at all. Moscow and Beijing have, in fact, stymied the release of UN reports on Russia’s funneling of weapons to Libya, another global hot spot the UNSC has prohibited from receiving military wares. Former North Korea panel members fear Russia and China may even try to prevent the extension of the Panel of Experts’ mandate altogether.

When panel reports are successfully published, UNSC members bring the panel’s recommendations for additional sanctions designations to the Sanctions Committee, but Russia and China block inclusion of their consideration on meeting agendas. As such, the Sanctions Committee has added no new designations since 2017, the year the UNSC passed its last resolution on North Korea.

Russia and China have decided not to implement UN sanctions against North Korea in order to preserve strategic ties to the Pyongyang regime and ensure its economic survival. Mercantilist business considerations also play a role. Russia and China have often endorsed UN sanctions in the wake of North Korea’s nuclear and ICBM tests, only to back away once the international spotlight moved on and U.S. priorities shifted. With the White House still determined to present its outreach to Kim Jong Un as a success despite the lack of progress toward denuclearization, Moscow and Beijing have exploited the lessening of tensions.

The crumbling enforcement consensus may already be having serious effects on compliance by smaller states, which traditionally felt enormous pressure when their country’s name appeared in panel reports. According to the Institute for Science and International Security, the number of countries involved in North Korea sanctions violations has increased from 49 countries in 2017 to 62 countries in 2020. Meanwhile, North Korea’s strategy to avoid garnering new UN sanctions and divide the great powers has been a success. Pyongyang refrains from additional nuclear and long-range missile tests and uses reduced sanctions enforcement to find new and creative ways to circumvent restrictions.

What can be done to improve the situation?

The next American president should bridge the current disconnect between U.S. efforts to enforce North Korea sanctions, by better coordinating the actions of the U.S. mission to the United Nations with an appropriately aligned U.S. policy. In favor of failed top-down diplomacy aimed at denuclearizing North Korea, the Trump administration has declined to add new unilateral sanctions, such as sanctions for missile launches or designations for banks assisting North Korea.

The victor of the next presidential election must move beyond this stagnant policy by enacting unilateral penalties for DPRK sanctions evasion and bolstering the UN mission’s efforts. This will necessitate increasing pressure on Russia and China to stop obstructing UN reporting, as well as a campaign to encourage them to agree to new designations.

While it is critical for member states to provide information and leads to the Panel of Experts, say former representatives, the legitimacy of its findings is increased to the extent that the panel can independently investigate information rather than relying on member states for evidence. The panel is then less subject to claims by Russia and China that a member state has distorted or invented information.

It is critical that the panel be able to impartially include all necessary information in its reports, which help governments, industry, the financial sector, and other stakeholders identify new North Korean sanctions-evasion schemes and their perpetrators. Naming and shaming through the media, a frequent U.S. tactic, can heighten discord and sharpen disagreements with regard to panel reporting, but is often innovative and useful for bringing exposure to new schemes.

If the North Korea panel is unable to include relevant information due to Chinese and Russian obstruction, the United States and its allies can circumvent the corrupted Sanctions Committee process and, with coalitions of like-minded nations, release their own reports. The United States and its allies must also expose obstruction at the Panel of Experts as it happens and deploy their own unilateral and regional sanctions to fill UN gaps and penalize illicit actors.

Washington should not sit idly by as Moscow and Beijing whittle away the North Korea sanctions regime in favor of their own ends. A new campaign to encourage compliance is long overdue.

Andrea Stricker is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where she also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from Andrea, CMPP, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Andrea on Twitter @StrickerNonpro. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


China International Organizations Military and Political Power Nonproliferation North Korea Russia Sanctions and Illicit Finance