Enforcing New North Korea Sanctions Poses Challenge

By Jake Maxwell Watts and Ben Otto Features Dow Jones Newswires

The U.S. scored a victory with the United Nations Security Council's passage of the toughest-ever economic sanctions against North Korea over the weekend. Now comes the hard part: making them stick, and fast.

Continue Reading Below

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met Sunday with counterparts from China, Russia, and a host of Asian countries at a security gathering in the Philippines as he seeks to build momentum to isolate North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. Ahead of a meeting with South Korea, he described the sanctions as "a good outcome."

But the U.S. is running out of time. The most recent missile launched by the regime at the end of July would be able to fly more than 6,400 miles, according to one analysis, putting Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago already within range. Some experts believe North Korea could develop a nuclear missile capable of handling atmospheric re-entry as early as next year.

"The problem with sanctions alone is that we don't have that kind of time," said Leon Sigal, director of the New York-based Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project, pointing to lags between when sanctions are implemented and enforced and when the economic effects are felt. "They're very close to an ICBM."

The Security Council has passed eight rounds of sanctions since 2006, when North Korea performed its first nuclear test. The sanctions hurt the secretive regime economically but failed to deter Pyongyang from working to become a nuclear power.

The latest sanctions, passed unanimously with the support of China, North Korea's biggest economic partner, are meant to close loopholes around the world that have allowed the rogue regime to cultivate trade, financing and labor ties to support its nuclear programs.

Continue Reading Below

China in a statement Sunday called the sanctions necessary. Beijing accounts for 90% of the North Korean regime's trade, according to various estimates.

After a meeting with North Korea's foreign minister in Manila, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Beijing had pressed North Korea "to stop the missile tests and even nuclear research which violate U.N. Security Council resolutions and the wishes of the international community."

North Korea's foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, restated Pyongyang's position on nuclear policy, Mr. Wang said, without elaborating. North Korea has previously refused to disarm, arguing that its nuclear capability is a deterrent to protect it from foreign aggression.

North Korean officials were unavailable for comment. Mr. Ri will have a chance to speak Monday to the 27 members of the Asean Regional Forum, gathered for the security meetings.

The new sanctions ban trade in coal with North Korea and bar countries from employing North Korean laborers and entering into joint ventures with Pyongyang. U.S. officials say the sanctions could cut a third, or $1 billion, off North Korea's foreign revenue.

"I think the efforts to isolate [North Korea] are already working, even with the previous sanctions in place. The problem is that they have not brought the 'desired effect' -- which should be progress in the denuclearization," said Oh Joon, a professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul and a former South Korean ambassador to the U.N.

The U.S. faces an uphill battle in Asia, where countries have business ties with North Korea dating back decades and experts say that many companies and individuals profit off hard-to-detect financing of trade.

China's trade with North Korea rose 10.5% in the first half of this year as part of its normal economic relationship not covered by sanctions, Chinese trade data show.

"Beijing's reluctance to implement U.N. sanctions is further enabling Pyongyang to sprint down the weapons path," said Duyeon Kim, a visiting senior fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul. "China knows it can squeeze the North enough without the collapse that it fears, but Beijing chooses not to because of its own strategic interests."

U.S. presidents have implored China to crack down on North Korea. Former President Barack Obama called on China to put pressure on the regime to abandon its nuclear missile program, while President Donald Trump has accused China of not doing enough.

On Sunday, Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary for the State Department Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said in Manila that the U.S. would focus on China's implementation to keep measures from "slipping back," as she said they had in the past.

Elsewhere in the region, the U.S. faces other diplomatic challenges reining in Pyongyang, in part because policing sanctions is expensive.

"Very rigorously enforcing sanctions has significant costs for the enforcer, and Southeast Asian countries are not generally willing to bear those costs," said Justin Hastings, professor of international relations at the University of Sydney.

In addition, some nations say they prefer to engage diplomatically with North Korea rather than isolate the regime as the U.S. has argued for.

A Japanese foreign ministry spokesman said Sunday that "now is not the time for dialogue but the time to increase effective pressure on North Korea, so that they will take concrete actions toward denuclearization."

Others took a different tack. "I think it's better that people talk," Philippine foreign secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said Friday. "The less we talk, the more grave the situation can become."

Several countries in Southeast Asia, such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, host North Korean embassies and some ties will be hard to unravel. Thailand was North Korea's third-largest import partner in 2015.

Malaysia has historically close ties to North Korea and until early this year was one of only a handful of nations to allow North Koreans to travel visa-free. That relationship deteriorated in February after the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was killed in a Kuala Lumpur airport in an operation that South Korean officials believe was orchestrated by Pyongyang.

--Jonathan Cheng in Hong Kong and Eva Dou in Beijing contributed to this article.

Write to Jake Maxwell Watts at jake.watts@wsj.com and Ben Otto at ben.otto@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 06, 2017 16:32 ET (20:32 GMT)