Russia’s veto on UN sanctions monitoring will further embolden North Korea

With a UN Security Council increasingly stymied by great power politics, the US and its regional allies must lead efforts to constrain an increasingly dangerous North Korea.

Expert comment Updated 14 May 2024 Published 8 April 2024 4 minute READ

On 28 March, Russia vetoed a United Nations (UN) Security Council resolution to extend the mandate of the panel of experts (PoE) responsible for monitoring North Korea’s violations of UN sanctions. This development underscores the weakening ability of the UN to constrain ‘rogue’ states, the strengthening alignment between Russia and North Korea, and poses significant challenges for addressing the ‘North Korea problem’.

Russia’s veto also demonstrates how it seeks to exonerate itself from any scrutiny of its own sanctions-violating actions.

The PoE was established following North Korea’s second nuclear test in May 2009 and its mandate has been extended annually. But this time, Russia’s veto of the resolution has ended the panel’s mandate, which will expire on 30 April. Russia’s veto also demonstrates how it seeks to exonerate itself from any scrutiny of its own sanctions-violating actions, including illicit trade with North Korea. 

An impotent United Nations

Russia’s veto highlights a policy reversal in its attitude towards the UN and its commitment towards North Korea’s denuclearization. With Russia actively supporting North Korea, the UN will increasingly struggle to restrain North Korea’s belligerence at a time when it is expanding its nuclear and missile capabilities, as demonstrated by recent tests of new missile technology.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the UN Security Council has become polarized to a point not seen since its inception. While the PoE’s demise does not affect existing UN sanctions on North Korea, their effectiveness in curtailing North Korea’s non-compliance with the nuclear non-proliferation regime – which is already questionable – will now be even weaker.

The growing anti-Western partnership between two of the Security Council’s permanent members, Russia and China, will make it harder for any additional sanctions on North Korea to be enforced. What is more, after the PoE’s mandate expires, it is unlikely that any similar independent groups will be resurrected.

An emboldened North Korea

North Korea has emerged as a clear victor following Russia’s veto, having long accused the Security Council of having double standards with respect to its missile tests. With Moscow’s unbridled support, Pyongyang will now be able to escape scot-free from any future violations of existing sanctions pertaining to nuclear and missile development, or otherwise.

A direct supply of Russian oil means North Korea will be able to devote greater financial resources to its nuclear and missile programmes.

Given the heightened cooperation between Russia and North Korea, it is no coincidence that prior to the Security Council vote, Russia’s foreign intelligence chief, Sergei Naryshkin, visited Pyongyang to meet with the North Korean minister of state security, Ri Chang Dae. Cooperation between the two countries has included correspondence between Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin, as well as cash-for-ammunition exchanges, whereby North Korea has sent weapons – including short-range Hwasong-11A ballistic missiles – to Russia to assist in its war against Ukraine.

Yet, cooperation has gone even further. North Korea has now obtained a direct supply of oil from Russia, in violation of UN resolution 2397. In March this year, North Korean tankers delivered oil products from Russia’s far east to the North Korean city of Chongjin. In early April, the South Korean coast guard intercepted an unflagged ship in the East China Sea, travelling from North Korea to Russia via China, on suspicion of carrying goods prohibited by sanctions.

Concerningly, a direct supply of Russian oil means North Korea will be able to devote greater financial resources to its nuclear and missile programmes instead of having to rely on more costly oil smuggling networks.

North Korea’s latest actions also reflect Kim Jong Un’s domestic priorities, especially his determination to expand the scope and sophistication of the country’s nuclear and missile capabilities. In a January 2021 address to the Workers’ Party of Korea, he vowed to ‘develop nuclear technology to a higher level’. One of his pledges was to develop new types of solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles and hypersonic missiles, both of which North Korea claims to have tested in the past month.

Alarmingly, on 2 April, North Korea launched a hypersonic solid-fuel intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), which state media described as being able to ‘strike any target in the enemy side worldwide’. Easier to manoeuvre than their liquid-fuel counterparts, solid-fuel missiles tipped with hypersonic warheads are also harder for missile defence systems to intercept, thereby posing a severe challenge to regional security. 

Regional cooperation challenges

China abstained from the vote to extend the PoE, highlighting Beijing’s support – albeit cautious – for its neighbour as the two countries seek to enhance ties in opposition to the West. As China’s special representative for Korean peninsula affairs, Liu Xiaoming, emphasized after Russia’s veto, only the United States holds the key to resolving tensions on the Korean peninsula. Nevertheless, with North Korea’s refusal to change its behaviour and engage in meaningful dialogue, the US and its Northeast Asian allies find themselves in a quandary.

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Surprisingly, Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has reached out to North Korea in recent months for talks ‘without preconditions’, aiming to resolve decades-long bilateral disputes, particularly over North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. However, Kishida’s overtures – which cannot be detached from a desperate desire to boost domestic approval ratings – are unlikely to bear fruit. Kim Yo Jong, the acerbic sister of Kim Jong Un, has rebuffed his olive branch, emphasizing that talks can only occur if Japan abandons its ‘hostility’ towards North Korea.

One area in which North Korea perceives such hostility is the US so-called ‘hub-and-spokes’ alliance system in Northeast Asia. Following North Korea’s latest IRBM test, the US, South Korea and Japan held their first trilateral air drills of the year, deploying B-52H strategic bombers and F-15 fighter jets. Recent speculation of Japan’s likely accession to the AUKUS’s ‘Pillar Two’, as part of the US push to strengthen deterrence against China, will also not go unnoticed by North Korea.

Negotiations between the US and North Korea are unlikely to take place this year, but the US proposal to hold a trilateral meeting with South Korea and Japan on the fringes of the NATO summit in July highlights the urgency of the situation. Kishida is also due to meet for talks with Biden on 10 April during a state visit to the US, where North Korea will feature on the agenda.

As North Korea continues to exploit a UN Security Council stymied by great power politics, the US and its regional allies must take the reins and lead efforts to constrain Pyongyang’s increasingly belligerent behaviour.