What's Behind New UN Sanctions on North Korea

After nearly two months of debate, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a new resolution to punish North Korea.

After nearly two months of debate, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a new resolution (2270) to punish North Korea for its most recent violations of previous U.N. resolutions. The document augments earlier U.N. measures against Pyongyang, reflecting growing international concern and resolve to confront the regime’s defiance and expanding nuclear and missile capabilities.

The new resolution goes beyond previous resolutions by increasing financial sanctions, expanding required inspections of North Korean cargo, and targeting key exports. Though praiseworthy, the resolution requires extensive and forceful implementation to be effective. A number of countries, most notably China, have been lackadaisical in enforcing previous resolutions.

Counter intuitively, North Korea’s fourth nuclear test and sixth long-range missile test triggered a stronger international action than its first tests.

There is now near unanimity of view that stronger sanctions must be imposed on North Korea for its serial violations of international agreements, U.N. resolutions, and U.S. law. Even experts and pundits who once derided sanctions in favor of diplomatic engagement with North Korea now grudgingly admit the necessity of punitive measures on Pyongyang.

South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. Congress all responded strongly to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests this year. President Park Geun-hye stood up to Chinese pressure and economic blackmail by moving forward on U.S. deployment of the THAAD missile defense system to South Korea and pulled the plug on the inter-Korean venture at Kaesong. This, however, failed to induce North Korean reform or moderate the regime’s aggressive behavior.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe imposed unilateral Japanese sanctions and the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly and bipartisanly passed the North Korea Policy and Sanctions Enforcement Act (NKPSEA) to induce President Barack Obama to move beyond his policy of timid incrementalism and to more fully enforce U.S. law.

U.N. Resolution 2270 follows this trend by including some impressive new sanctions which, of course, could have been included in previous resolutions had it not been for repeated Chinese obstructionism.

Both Beijing and Moscow reportedly watered down U.S.-proposed drafts of this month’s resolution. The resolution takes aim at North Korea’s access to the international financial system in order to constrain its nuclear and missile programs.

Important Financial Provisions

A significant, though easily overlooked provision, is banning all financial institutions from initiating or maintaining a correspondent account with North Korea unless it is approved by the U.N. 1718 committee. Previously the U.N. requirement was to prohibit correspondent accounts only if reasonable grounds exist for believing that it could contribute to North Korean nuclear or missile programs. If fully implemented, this new requirement could force disclosure of and increase scrutiny of all North Korean financial transactions.

Given international financial institutions’ extreme sensitivity to reputational risk, this clause could also lead to increased due diligence efforts to prevent being even unwittingly complicit with North Korean illicit activities or to cancel their links with North Korea.

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