The U.S. has called them the toughest measures "in a generation" - Kim Jong Un will likely increase tensions
United Nations Resolution 2371, agreed on Saturday in response to North Korea’s two July intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests, has the potential to seriously impact Pyongyang’s foreign currency earning capabilities.
Banning all North Korean exports of coal, iron, lead, and even seafood, as well as limiting the DPRK’s overseas worker numbers to current levels, the U.S. estimates the new resolution could wipe off up to a third of the country’s USD$3 billion of annual exports.
Furthermore, restrictions on new or expanded joint-venture investment, restrictions on overseas workers, new travel bans, asset freezes and shipping restrictions, and enhanced scrutiny on North Korean diplomatic and illicit networks could together significantly raise the level of pressure that Pyongyang currently feels.
As a result of the degree of possible impact and Pyongyang’s view that its nuclear and ballistic capabilities are fully justifiable and non-negotiable, North Korea’s promise of a “decisive act of justice” in response to Resolution 2371 is not surprising.
Consequently, further medium or long-range ballistic missile tests, nuclear weapons detonations, widespread cyber attacks, or exchanges of fire along the DMZ and the Northern Limit Line (NLL) can be expected, with a possibility for a serious spike in tensions along the peninsula, as was seen in spring 2013 following the implementation of UNSCRs 2087 and 2094.
Kim Jong Un will be under significant internal pressure to show his commitment to nuclear and ballistic missile development is unwavering
RISK OF TURBULENCE
North Korea’s reaction to the new sanctions will – based on precedent – initially be articulated through harsh denunciations from state media and central government. These responses will likely start by attacking Washington for its role in spearheading similar measures, but will also focus on South Korea for its support for the new UN Resolution and its reported appetite for further unilateral sanctions. The forthcoming joint U.S.-South Korea Ulchi Freedom Guardian military drills will further catalyze North Korean displeasure.
Given recent public friction with Beijing on its support for previous sanctions and consideration of additional unilateral measures, it is probable that North Korea will expand its complaints to criticize Chinese and possibly Russian support for the new measures.
However, such steps risk increasing Chinese public support for Beijing to take ‘unofficial’ steps to punish Pyongyang, which could involve a freeze of Air China flights to the North, cancellations of government-to-government contacts, or even temporary suspensions of fuel or commodity exports to the North.
As a result of the wide, sector-level nature of some of the measures imposed in UNSCR 2371 – something Pyongyang can use to present as evidence of U.S.-led efforts to implement an economic blockade – a particularly aggressive form of North Korean response to the sanctions may be possible beyond what state media alone will say.
In particular, Kim Jong Un will be under significant internal pressure to show his commitment to nuclear and ballistic missile development is unwavering, and that his country will not capitulate to U.S.-led demands. As a result, there is potential for North Korea’s relations with the U.S. and South Korea to fall to similar levels to those witnessed in March and April 2013, when Pyongyang repeatedly communicated internally and externally that war was imminent.
Today, given the far-more advanced status of North Korea’s WMD capabilities and the character of emerging leadership in Washington, such an atmosphere could significantly increase the potential for intended or unintended military escalations along the border.
The forthcoming joint U.S.-South Korea Ulchi Freedom military drills will further catalyze North Korean displeasure
Furthermore, because of Kim Jong Un’s commitment to completing the testing of his nascent ICBM and second-strike capability, a short term response to UNSC 2371 could be for Pyongyang to conduct further long-range missile tests and/or submarine-launched ballistic missile tests.
Not only would such launches give North Korean missile engineers additional data, but they could also refute lingering assessments in the analytic community that the DPRK has yet to master some of the necessary technologies required to field a reliable missile based nuclear deterrent.
In addition, by conducting such tests in the current environment, Pyongyang would be able to further signal that it will not yield to international pressure. A similar motivation could additionally explain a sixth nuclear test, the impact of which could be significantly enlarged if the DPRK were to test a hydrogen-type device at much greater yield than has been seen in the past five tests.
Beyond media, diplomatic and military articulations of North Korean anger at the new measures, there is also potential for consequences to result from UNSC 2371 within the DPRK. While the stated objective of the sanctions is to bring North Korea to the negotiating table, any economic pressure that Pyongyang feels from UNSC 2371 is unlikely at this time to have much impact on the pace of the country’s special weapons development.
On the one hand, the precedent of North Korea’s famine period strongly suggests that any costs incurred from the new sanctions will be felt first and foremost by the citizens of North Korea, not the military. This, therefore, implies that Pyongyang’s desire to evolve its missile and nuclear capabilities will remain. On the other hand, any dents in economic growth caused by UNSC 2371 will likely be presented to domestic audiences as a necessary but a short-term cost – resulting from U.S. hostile policy – that is necessary to bear in order to yield larger benefits in the long-term.
In a nutshell, there is a strong chance that 2371 could be followed by a rapid spike in tensions between the DPRK and high potential for additional weapons tests in defiance of the new measures.
AFTER A POTENTIAL PROVOCATION?
Paragraph 30 of 2371 makes clear that the DPRK’s behavior will now be closely scrutinized and that “in the event of a further DPRK nuclear test or launch,” the UNSC will be prepared to “take further significant measures”. So how, therefore, might the international community respond to such events in the wake of the latest Resolution?
Coming so soon after U.S. President Donald Trump took to Twitter and lambasted China for failing to prevent North Korea’s recent ICBM tests – and following new U.S. unilateral sanctions against Russia – Beijing and Moscow’s support on Saturday for the wide-ranging character of Resolution 2371 was notable.
Any economic pressure that Pyongyang feels from UNSC 2371 is unlikely at this time to have much impact on the pace of North Korea’s special weapons development
Secretary of State’s Tillerson’s recent public commitments that the U.S. does not seek regime change in Pyongyang – nor want accelerated unification on the peninsula – may have contributed to bolstering Chinese and Russian support for the new measures.
But it’s also possible U.S. threats on widespread secondary sanctions – measures that would carry the potential for far greater costs in China and Russia – that gave Moscow and Beijing their own motivations to support the Resolution 2371.
But while Washington got a full vote for Saturday’s resolution, it may have been at the cost of leaving some measures off the final document. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said in July – for example – that the international community could do more if it targeted oil exports to North Korea, increased air and maritime restrictions (for example, if the UN sanctioned the DPRK state carrier, Air Koryo), or by pursuing senior members of the DPRK leadership.
Missing aspects like these – some of which could undeniably add to the pressure on Pyongyang – could, therefore, become an important part of any subsequent UNSC response to North Korea’s own future actions.
Whether the U.S. will be able to secure full P5 support for much harsher future measures in the event of another ICBM or nuclear test is unclear.
After the announcement of Saturday’s Resolution, China underscored the need for further consideration of its two-track proposal that denuclearization be tackled simultaneously to the establishment of a peace mechanism. Meanwhile, Russia underscored that sanctions should not be imposed to create an “economic asphyxiation” of the DPRK, adding that absent a reduction in the military threat Pyongyang says it feels, progress on denuclearization will be limited.
Together, it therefore appears that unless the U.S. makes at least some effort to engage Pyongyang, even if chances for success are low, key members of the UNSC might have difficulty agreeing to much tougher additional measures in future.
NO REAL NEGOTIATION
At this point, it appears that any DPRK appetite to genuinely engage in serious talks will only emerge if sanctions becomes such that living standards significantly worsen for large parts of North Korean society, especially the middle to upper classes upon which senior leaders rely for support.
However, the ostensible goal of UNSC Resolutions is to not impact the life of normal DPRK citizens. As such, while UNSC 2371 is significantly wider in scope than anything seen to date, the already widespread humanitarian problems in North Korea make it unlikely that the Security Council would support the level of biting sanctions required to significantly imperil the livelihood of DPRK citizens. As a result, it appears unlikely that North Korea will be motivated to offer its programs for discussion as a result of the type of costs UNSC will impose.
While Washington got a full vote for Saturday’s resolution, it may have been at the cost of leaving some measures off the final document
However, the ostensible goal of UNSC Resolutions is to not impact the life of normal DPRK citizens. As such, while UNSC 2371 is significantly wider in scope than anything seen to date, the already widespread humanitarian problems in North Korea make it unlikely that the Security Council would support the level of biting sanctions required to significantly imperil the livelihood of DPRK citizens.
As a result, it doesn’t look like North Korea will be motivated to come to the table as a result of the type of costs UNSC will impose.
More likely is that in the event Pyongyang evolves its WMD capabilities to a sufficiently sophisticated level as to justify freezes on additional tests from a military research perspective, it’s possible North Korea could develop its own rationale for engaging in talks outside of any pressure caused by the latest measures.
At that point, however, U.S. appetite for any such talks may have been lost as a result of the realization that diplomacy can no longer prevent the emergence of a North Korea capable of credibly targeting cities throughout the continental United States.
Realizing this, the U.S. may feel forced to pursue an expanded range of unilateral measures in the medium term to further pressure Pyongyang, mixing secondary sanctions, pressure on China to do more, shows of force surrounding the peninsula, and potential even for expanded information operations.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
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