“Unrealistically high expectations” surround the growing body of international sanctions on North Korea, a former member of the United Nation’s Panel of Experts (UN PoE) tasked with working on sanctions monitoring and implementation told NK News.
Japanese representative Katsuhisa Furukawa, who worked at the PoE in New York City until April 2016, said history showed that sanctions can only be effective if accompanied by the use of force or diplomacy.
“But when it comes to North Korea, there are only sanctions and unrealistically high expectations on what sanctions can achieve, which can never come true,” he said in an extended interview in Seoul this January.
“We need to be realistically mindful about what we can expect from the use of sanctions: we can restrict its WMD program, but sanctions alone cannot terminate the WMD program.”
The problem, he said, stems from the fact Pyongyang only requires a limited amount of strategic material for its nuclear and missile weapons programs, and that its overseas acquisition network has significant expertise.
“When a government is determined to smuggle strategic items, it is really difficult to stop them from doing that,” he said. “Even if China becomes serious, it may be impossible.”
“Think about it; U.S., Japan, South Korea, Europe; these countries have good legal systems but even so, drugs, weapons and other prohibited items are smuggled in, even laborers.”
Consequently, Furukawa expressed fears that an over-reliance on sanctions alone may end up resulting in some form of military conflict on the peninsula.
This transcript has been lightly edited for concision and readability
NK News: You’ve just published a book about North Korea issues in Japan. What’s that about?
Katsuhisa Furukawa: It is about my experience in the UN, particularly my investigating key sanctions violations cases as well as networks of designated entities based on publicly available information, as well as my personal information.
I wanted the reader to get a sense about the reality of how sanctions are actually implemented and how difficult it is to squeeze North Korea’s clandestine activities.
After leaving the United Nations, and by reading various discussions in Japan and abroad, I have always felt that there are unrealistically high expectations about what sanctions can do to constrain North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
Everybody misunderstands that moment when the UN Security Council adopts a new Resolution: people get satisfied and feel easy that now we have these tough new sanctions, North Korea will be finished. But that’s not true at all.
The moment a new Security Council resolution is adopted, to me, is the very beginning of a very painful process of actually enforcing the new set of sanctions. And this takes time – one year, two/three years, or even longer. This is the reality.
So when we shape a path for North Korea – the pressure or the dialogue approach – we need to be realistically mindful about the role and limits of sanctions. That is the message contained in my book.
NK News: What is the biggest hurdle facing the UN Panel of Experts (PoE) regarding North Korea sanctions implementation right now?
Katsuhisa Furukawa: The key challenge is that the new sanctions regime is rapidly expanding through the use of Security Council Resolutions.
Traditionally, international committees, when they try to enact new international laws, use a treaty-based approach. It takes time to adopt and sign a treaty by member states and it takes further time to implement a treaty domestically. But this approach doesn’t fit with the rapid pace of sanctions evasions techniques adopted by actors like North Korea, Islamic State or others targeted by the UN Security Council.
The U.S. and UN approaches have been particularly focused on expanding international laws and targeting of specific actors with robust measures through the use of Security Council resolutions. But while UN Resolutions providing extensive legal authority and also strong obligations for member states to adopt very strict sanctions against North Korea, in almost all countries the bureaucracies cannot catch up with this rapidly expanding stock of sanctions.
So we see a gap emerging between international obligations and domestic legal systems. And this gaps gives sufficient room for North Korea to maneuver through its existing international sanctions evasion networks. This gap exists between and within the member states.
“We see a gap emerging between international obligations and domestic legal systems. And this gaps gives sufficient room for North Korea to maneuver through its existing international sanction networks…”
By within member states, I mean financial regulatory authorities, customs control authorities, export control authorities, domestic law enforcement authorities. They don’t share information as much as we expect them to do, which is exactly why services like your NK Pro website are not so widely known by some relevant stakeholders, even in Japan.
Another challenge is that government officials change positions every two/three/four years, in almost all cases. So the accumulation of institutional frameworks are not sufficient when compared to North Korean sanction evaders, who operate in the same field for many years. DPRK finance experts, maritime transportation experts, traders – they all operate in the same field for a decade or more, meaning the North Koreans are on a higher ground.
Then consider that when they carry out smuggling operations, several countries are always involved: the country of cargo origin, the destination, where the money is paid from, the brokers’ locations, and so on. As a result, more than three countries are often involved – but the governments of these countries may not necessarily be good at cooperating with each other. So the professional know-how and networks show that the North Koreans are very skilled, which we need to realize.
And not to mention, North Korea is not alone. They are not isolated, they are connected: there are over sixty member states which have diplomatic relations with North Korea.
NK News: But what about the U.S. push to diplomatically isolate North Korea?
Katsuhisa Furukawa: Over the past year, we increasingly had governments saying ‘we will terminate trade with North Korea’ – with some member states saying they will expel their North Korean ambassador back to Pyongyang.
That is good, but remember Japan terminated all its trade relations with North Korea since 2006. However, as North Korea investigations often reveal, we still see a large number of Japanese commodities floating around in Pyongyang. So even when member states say ‘we will terminate trade with North Korea’, the businessmen in that country who have been depending on trading with North Korea will always find another circumvention point to keep trade going.
So long as a country has diplomatic relations with North Korea, it means there is some movement of people. Therefore, even if a government refuses to provide working visas to DPRK laborers, if the North Korean people can still enter the country for sightseeing purposes, they will stay there. They will just continue to do the same job without a visa (illegally). So we shouldn’t be happy hearing statements made by multiple member states that ‘we are taking measures’. We need to verify and we need to constantly monitor.
“Over the past year, we increasingly had governments saying ‘we will terminate trade with North Korea’…that is good, but remember Japan terminated all its trade relations since 2006 (and) we still see a large number of Japanese commodities floating around in Pyongyang”
This is particularly true for Africa – it took some time for us to squeeze Namibia. This case started during the last period of my term at the UN Panel and after my departure, my Korean colleague took on the effort and the Namibian foreign minister pledged that they would cut ties with the North Korean company there.
But what they did was just transfer all the North Korean laborers to a Chinese paper company which was set up immediately afterwards – the same people operating the same business in Namibia, circumventing the authorities by pretending to be a Chinese company. And as late as September last year, Japanese network NHK was still confirming the presence of East Asian-looking laborers in the same place.
NK News: On a scale of 1-10, how would you evaluate global sanctions implementation right now?
Katsuhisa Furukawa: Somewhere between 4-5. This is the reality.
Many countries in the Middle East and Africa need assistance from North Korea. They need cheap weapons and they need someone to take care of their very old Soviet Union-era conventional weapon systems. No one can do this except North Korea. And they are fighting internal wars – Yemen, Sudan, Libya – so they need weapons.
And those countries are good at telling us what we like to hear.
When the U.S. pressures them, they will say ‘we will terminate our relationship with North Korea’. They will say that, but don’t believe their word, you have to verify.
So North Korea still retains significant customers abroad and they still have operation bases all over the world, including Japan and probably in South Korea as well.
Many people have a relationship with North Korea, even today – Southeast Asia, I don’t know how many North Koreans still stay there; legally or illegally. Then there are the places where advanced manufacturing takes place, such as in Europe, U.S., South Korea and Japan. These countries manufacture very good stuff which can be converted into missile systems or for a nuclear facility.
My principle overseas base concern is of course China and equally the former Soviet Union states including Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. North Korea also opened up an embassy in Belarus in September 2016 – so you should assume that that’s a new operation base. And Belarus is where the Minsk wheel tractor plant MZKT that manufactures some TELs for missiles is.
There are so many loopholes that we haven’t paid attention to. So according to my overall assessment of sanctions enforcement, my view is that we are now are about to reach score 5.
NK News: It seems there is a big gulf between rhetoric surrounding ‘maximum pressure’ and the resources behind sanctions implementation and monitoring. If that’s the case, what would it really take, in your opinion, to get the sanctions implementation up to levels that could actually have some impact?
Katsuhisa Furukawa: Sanctions have some impact on the North Korean economy already. The information I got from Japanese contacts and other sources points to increasing difficulties in the border regions of North Korea, as well as the rural areas. But as the situation in Pyongyang is concerned so far, commodity prices are still stable as of early December. The currency exchange rate with the U.S. dollar is also stable (relatively) but some change can be observed in Pyongyang.
The sanctions are certainly increasing the economic difficulty for North Korea. But remember that is not the objective of the sanctions. We didn’t intend to annihilate the North Korean economy; that is not our objective.
Our objective is to terminate North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. And in this regard, North Korea appears to be even more determined to speed up the development of their nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. They have been able to do this because North Korea is a country which constantly takes on smuggling operations — and trading with North Korea is not prohibited by the UN Security Council.
The UN sanctions were originally targeted sanctions, which were intended to terminate the flow of people, money and goods relating to North Korean government and diplomats. But since 2016, the UN sanctions regime has shifted from targeted sanctions towards a partial economic blockade. But still, trading with North Korea by itself is not prohibited – which means people and goods move. And when people move, it makes it possible to also continue smuggling operations – such as of goods and technology.
When a government is determined to smuggle strategic items, it is really difficult to stop them from doing that
North Korea is also rich with natural resources and their industrial capability should never be underestimated because they basically stole everything from Japan throughout the 20th century. They are good. They have an impressive industrial capability and natural resources.
So for North Korea to continue the nuclear and missile programs, they just need to use a certain amount of external transactions. And when a government is determined to smuggle strategic items, it is really difficult to stop them from doing that. Even if China becomes serious, it may be impossible.
Think about it; U.S., Japan, South Korea, Europe; these countries have good legal systems but even so, drugs, weapons and other prohibited items are smuggled in, even laborers. How many illegal foreign laborers do we have in each country and why do we expect only the North Korean labor force to be successfully excluded from abroad?
We have to remember that sanctions can certainly squeeze North Korea and constrain the nuclear and missile program, but they are not sufficient to terminate the programs by themselves.
NK News: What then do you think is the solution in terms of the role that sanctions can play?
Katsuhisa Furukawa: If you look the historical uses of sanctions to terminate nuclear arms in other countries, then sanctions can be effective only in two ways: sanctions plus use of force or sanctions plus a diplomatic approach.
Sanctions plus use of force was the case of Iraq, while sanctions plus diplomatic approach included notable cases were Libya and Iran.
When it comes to North Korea, my concern is that somehow, sanctions alone have become the strategy.
But sanctions were originally intended to be a tool to assist diplomatic efforts. They were intended to guide the specific target country to come to the negotiating table to negotiate a freeze or termination of a WMD program.
But when it comes to North Korea, there are only sanctions and unrealistically high expectations on what sanctions can achieve, which can never come true. We need to be realistically mindful about what we can expect from the use of sanctions. We can restrict its WMD program, but sanctions alone cannot terminate the WMD program.
NK News: What is your outlook for the years ahead with sanctions and North Korea?
Katsuhisa Furukawa: North Korea will experience further difficulty but as time goes by, they will find ways to more effectively smuggle prohibited items, which we have already seen in Dandong and other border areas despite strengthened activities by the Chinese law enforcement authorities.
Now, North Korea seafoods are on the rise again in the border region with China and as time goes by, they will adapt. So the timing is important.
When North Korea feels the pain it is important to find a way to get them to a diplomatic conversation and ensure that a freeze of testing will continue with the ultimate objective of the termination of the nuclear program – probably, in the wider context of how to ensure a peace regime on the Korean peninsula.
That discussion has to take place, otherwise, I’m deeply concerned that some military conflict could happen on the peninsula.
Last year, the Japanese Prime Minister Abe made effort on a few occasions to stop the Trump administration from taking unnecessarily provocative measures such as guiding the U.S. aircraft carrier Carl Vinson close to North Korean territorial and preventing the Trump administration from issuing a statement which would indicate the use of force against North Korea.
The Trump administration seems to be insensitive to the risk associated with their actions and the Japanese are deeply concerned that a military conflict could happen because of a misunderstanding between the U.S. and North Korea or because the Trump administration miscalculated the risk associated with a strike or any other operations against North Korea.
We need to prevent conflict but to do that we have to ensure that sanctions, which are an obligation of all the UN member states, are sincerely and effectively implemented.
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