The United Nations Security Council is set to vote on Monday to impose new sanctions on North Korea over its largest nuclear bomb test, after the United States watered-down the text of a resolution to appease China and Russia. A week ago, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley called for the “strongest possible” sanctions on North Korea and had sought an oil embargo on Pyongyang. But after negotiations in recent days, mainly among the council’s veto powers – the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France – the revised draft appears to resemble another incremental increase in sanctions on Pyongyang.
Compared to the initial U.S.-draft, given to all 15 council members on Wednesday, the new text would still impose a ban on North Korea’s textile exports, but it no longer blacklists leader Kim Jong Un or the country’s national airline. And instead of cutting off Pyongyang’s oil supply, the council would only cap crude oil exports to the country at the current level. When asked if the changes would be enough to win over Russia and North Korean ally China, British U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said on Monday: “Yes. I hope so.”
“There is a significant prize in keeping the whole of the Security Council united,” he told reporters. “The version on the table is strong, it is robust.”
A Security Council resolution needs nine votes in favor and no vetoes to pass. The council has unanimously adopted eight resolutions since 2006 gradually ratcheting up sanctions on North Korea over its ballistic missile and nuclear programs. In negotiations on the latest resolution, diplomats said Russia had questioned what leverage the Security Council would have left if North Korea continued to conduct nuclear and missile testing.
U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed not to allow North Korea to develop a nuclear missile capable of hitting the mainland United States. North Korea was condemned globally for its latest nuclear test on Sept. 3, which it said was of an advanced hydrogen bomb.
Pyongyang warned the United States on Monday that it would pay a “due price” for spearheading efforts on U.N. sanctions. “The world will witness how the DPRK tames the U.S. gangsters by taking a series of actions tougher than they have ever envisaged,” the North’s foreign ministry said in a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency.
The tensions have weighed on global markets, but on Monday there was some relief among investors that North Korea did not conduct a further missile test this weekend when it celebrated its founding anniversary. European Council on Foreign Relations U.N. expert Richard Gowan said the United States had “rather predictably been mugged by reality” during the most recent negotiations” on sanctions though it was arguable that the high U.S. bar had pushed China and Russia to agree more limited sanctions “relatively quickly.”
“China and Russia were never going to accept the severe package of sanctions tabled by Haley,” he said. “This sort of lengthy, incremental diplomatic bargaining may be the best it can hope for. The alternative is, after all, a slide towards war.”
Traditionally, the United States has discreetly negotiated with China on any North Korea sanctions before expanding talks to the full council once the five veto powers have agreed. More recently this has typically taken one to three months. But after the latest nuclear test, Haley took a more public approach, announcing that she would circulate a draft resolution to all council members and that she intended to call for a vote on Sept. 11. “It’s a deliberate strategy by the U.S. to prevent China taking a couple of months to engage and then water stuff down,” said a Security Council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Instead of an oil embargo, the revised draft seeks a ban on condensates and natural gas liquids, a cap of two million barrels a year on refined petroleum products, and a cap crude oil exports to North Korea at current levels. Chinese officials have privately expressed fears that an oil embargo could risk triggering massive instability in its neighbor. China supplies most of North Korea’s crude. According to South Korean data, Beijing supplies roughly 500,000 tonnes of crude oil annually. It also exports 200,000 tonnes of oil products, according to U.N. data.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang stressed the need for consensus over North Korea and maintaining peace.
“I have said before that China agrees that the U.N. Security Council should make a further response and necessary actions with respect to North Korea’s sixth nuclear test,” he told reporters. The draft drops a bid to remove an exception for transshipments of Russian coal via the North Korean port of Rajin. The text also no longer authorizes states to use “all necessary measures” to intercept and inspect ships that have been blacklisted by the council.
The new draft resolution steps up restrictions over the employment of North Korean laborers abroad, but stops short of a complete ban that was initially proposed by the United States. It also expands a recent ban on joint ventures with North Korea. Russia and China have been critical that there is too much focus on pressuring North Korea with sanctions and not enough debate about kick-starting talks with Pyongyang. There is new political language in the final draft urging “further work to reduce tensions so as to advance the prospects for a comprehensive settlement.”
Richard Nephew, a former U.S. government sanctions expert and a contributor to 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea monitoring project, said there were “fundamentally different views on the DPRK” at the Security Council. “We lack vision to incorporate sanctions into a broader strategy and this is hurting our ability to get really tough sanctions or use them appropriately. This must change if we are to avoid just using sanctions for sanctions’ sake,” he said.