Washington: The UN Security Council has whacked crippling new sanctions on North Korea to force it to negotiate over its nuclear and weapons programs.
But it came only after days of diplomatic horse-trading, in which Washington caved to demands by Beijing and Moscow that even harsher American terms be defanged.
The deal between the three powers ensured that neither the Chinese nor the Russians exercised their Security Council veto, which would have derailed what became a unanimous resolution in the aftermath of Pyongyang’s sixth and most powerful nuclear device test on September 3.
More importantly, Monday evening’s vote revealed the power that China and Russia hold as the globe confronts the North Korea crisis, which on the one hand, they see more as Washington’s problem; while on the other, they see US prescriptions to resolve the crisis as more of a problem for them.
These latest sanctions tighten the UN tourniquet on the regime and its economy, particularly a new ban on its imports of natural gas and condensate; and its exports of textiles, which last year earned more than $US700 million ($874 million).
Combined with the impact of pre-existing sanctions on North Korean exports of coal, iron ore and seafood, the US claims that more than 90 per cent of the North’s exports are now under sanction.
But to get that far, Washington agreed to temper its latest demands.
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley wanted a total oil embargo – but Monday’s resolution caps the North’s oil imports at 8.5 million barrels a year, a cut of 10 per cent to 30 per cent depending on how the math is done.
The resolution freezes the assets of several regime entities and travel by their officials – but not the assets of, or travel by the country’s leader Kim Jong-un, as had been stipulated by the US.
And while the resolution calls for the inspection of ships to and from North Korea, Washington dropped its early call for the use of military force if needed to execute any ship searches.
Also the resolution flagged, but did not implement a ban on renewing the contracts of close to 100,000 North Korean guest workers, most of whom work in Russia’s far east, and who repatriate salaries worth an estimated $US500 million a year.
And perhaps some of the sanctions are moot – there are reports that as sanctions have kicked in there’s been a matching spike in oil smuggling between Russia and North Korea; and the British-based International Institute for Strategic Studies argues that Pyongyang can substitute liquidised coal for oil.
Going into Monday’s security council meeting, French UN Ambassador Francois Delattre declared: “The stronger the sanctions we impose on North Korea, the stronger our hand in promoting a political solution – by definition, this is a compromise in order to get everyone on board”.
Attributing the deal to the relationship between President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, Haley hailed the decision as a demonstration of global unity against Pyongyang.
But just as Washington had toned down its sanctions demands, Haley also had toned down her rhetoric – last week, she insisted that the North was “begging for war” but on Monday she allowed Pyongyang time to take a new tack.
“If it agrees to stop its nuclear program it can reclaim its future; if it proves it can live in peace, the world will live in peace with it,” she told the council meeting:
China worries that a total oil embargo would lead to collapse in the North. And maybe it did the US a favour by holding its position – British diplomats warned ahead of the vote that cutting all oil deliveries to the North as winter approaches would have resulted in Pyongyang holding up pictures of freezing children and charging that the West was the architect of a new genocide.
When it comes to North Korea, China and Russia have much more in common with each other, than with the US. Neither wants a regime on its doorstep to collapse; neither wants a reunified Korean peninsula, which inevitable would be under US patronage; and neither wants American anti-missile defence systems, such as the recently deployed THAAD systems, in their backyard.
To that extent, some analysts argue that Trump’s erratic policy pronouncements on North Korea are making Beijing and Moscow even closer allies and presenting them with an opportunity to undercut the US on the global stage. Just as Moscow sees Ukraine as a buffer between it and Europe; Beijing sees the North as a buffer between it and Washington-allied South Korea.
Both Beijing and Moscow are urging a mutual freeze on the peninsula – Pyongyang to halt its nuclear program in return for the US and Seoul freezing their joint military exercises, which the North sees as a threat.
Washington balks at being so frozen out. But for all Trump’s belligerence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others in the Trump administration are committed to negotiations, a possible framework for which emerged in weekend comments by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
As a participant in the Obama era deal by which Iran agreed to restrain its nuclear program in return for a lifting of global sanctions, Merkel said in a Sunday interview:
“If our participation in talks is wanted, I will say yes immediately???I could also imagine such a format to settle the North Korea conflict.”
Never mind that Trump is so critical of the Iran deal. Looking at all the layers of Washington’s North Korea strategy – sanctions, military threats, covert action and sanctions on Chinese and other companies that trade with Pyongyang – some analysts see the contours of an Iran-like process emerging.