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Why further sanctions against North Korea could be tough to add

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During last week’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Madrid, the leaders of the United States, South Korea, and Japan held a trilateral meeting. The lead topic: security concerns about North Korea, which reportedly has completed preparations for a seventh nuclear test.

This meeting comes just a month after the United Nations Security Council failed to adopt a resolution condemning North Korea for test-firing three missiles, including an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). These weapons, some analysts argue, suggest North Korea may be capable of delivering a nuclear strike against the United States, South Korea, or Japan.

In a 13-2 vote on May 26, China and Russia vetoed a resolution led by the United States to strengthen sanctions against North Korea. What does the Security Council’s failure to address North Korean provocations mean for peace and security on the Korean Peninsula, and for global nonproliferation? My research suggests these are three areas to watch.

The North Korean sanctions regime is crumbling

In the past, economic sanctions have been the international community’s response to North Korea’s long-range missile and nuclear tests. But how likely are further sanctions — and is this an effective tool?

From 2006 to 2017, the international community relied on sanctions as the “go-to” tool to punish and condemn North Korea for conducting nuclear and long-range missile tests. During that period, the Security Council unanimously passed nine sanctions resolutions in response to North Korean weapons tests.

The last U.N. resolution calling for sanctions, S/RES/2397, passed in late 2017 following North Korea’s first ICBM launches. Although sanctions have remained in place since then, a U.N. panel of experts tasked with evaluating their effectiveness against North Korea has pointed out significant gaps in sanctions enforcement in recent years.

China and Russia see sanctions as a Western tool for weaponizing the global economy against autocracies. Both regimes have made it clear they’re not interested in pressing for further sanctions against North Korea. Beijing views additional sanctions on North Korea as counterproductive and inhumane. Meanwhile, ongoing sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine have made Moscow eager to undercut U.S.-led sanctions efforts against North Korea.

North Korea’s isolation from the global economy, further compounded by the regime’s self-imposed border lockdown during the covid-19 pandemic, has also given the Security Council little left to sanction. Without cooperation from Russia and, especially, China — which accounted for more than 90% of pre-pandemic trade with North Korea — it’s unclear how the international community will enforce even the existing sanctions against North Korea.

South Korea and the U.S. are upping the pressure

Given the Security Council’s frequent deadlock, Seoul and Washington have begun responding to North Korean provocations more directly and forcefully.

As multilateral institutions become less effective in an era of stronger China-Russia cooperation, the U.S. and South Korea have shifted to a strategy of defense, deterrence, and denial against North Korea. As waiting on North Korea to respond to diplomatic overtures has become increasingly costly, the U.S. and South Korea have opted for a stronger defense posture, including discussions on expanded joint military exercises and positioning U.S. strategic assets such as aircraft carriers and nuclear-capable bombers closer to the Korean Peninsula.

For instance, the U.S. deployed the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group toward the Korean Peninsula in April. In June, the U.S. and South Korea flew fighter jets over the Yellow Sea. And in response to North Korea’s launch of eight short-range ballistic missiles on June 5, the two allies fired off eight missiles of their own. By responding to North Korean pressure with pressure of its own, the U.S. and South Korea aims to raise the cost of continued North Korean missile launches.

What happens to the nonproliferation regime?

Beyond the Korean Peninsula, Security Council vetoes by China and Russia pose further challenges for the world’s broader nuclear nonproliferation regime.

What happens if North Korea conducts a seventh nuclear test? Given the hardening of divisions between authoritarian powers such as China and Russia, and the United States and its allies, the prospects of a unanimous Security Council resolution in response appear dim, based on Beijing and Moscow’s defense of their May vetoes. Both China and Russia criticized the U.S.-led resolution for “chanting empty slogans for dialogue and increasing sanctions against the DPRK.”

And a failed attempt at a U.N. resolution following a North Korea nuclear test would be a first for the Security Council, further damaging its credibility. A growing concern to proliferation experts is the potential message to other nuclear proliferators, including Iran. Would Iran try to exploit a perceived gap in the nonproliferation regime? Iran is reportedly enriching uranium and building a network of tunnels near nuclear production sites. However, Iran, like North Korea, is unlikely to face repercussions within the Security Council.

Greater China-Russia strategic cooperation now appears to be further complicating global governance mechanisms, with ripple effects on a range of existing global challenges — including North Korea’s weapons program. The big challenge in addressing North Korean denuclearization rests with the Pyongyang regime’s own insecurity and isolation as it continues to ignore requests to resume dialogue. The lack of international solidarity in responding to North Korean provocations, however, may now make it even harder to persuade or pressure Pyongyang to roll back its nuclear program.

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