UNSC Resolution 2356



In a departure from past pattern, the UN Security Council has passed a new sanctions resolution. All of the other major sanctions resolutions except one were passed in the wake of nuclear tests—1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2094 (2013), 2270 and 2320 (both in 2016)—with the exception coming in the wake of a satellite launch (2087; 2013). But is the resolution a strong or weak signal?

The relatively short resolution builds on the process begun under UNSCR 1718 (paragraph 8d and 8e) of imposing travel bans and asset freezes on individuals and freezing the assets of particular entities. The list of 14 designated individuals includes a mixed bag of officials, ranging from the Organization and Guidance and Propaganda Departments—six of the designees—to those involved in the country’s weapons industry. Two that caught our eye because of a greater likelihood of actual foreign travel: Ri Su Yong of the Korea Ryonbong General Corporation and particularly Kim Tong-ho, Vietnam Representative for Tanchon Commercial Bank, which is the main Democratic People’s Republic of Korea financial entity for weapons and missile-related sales. The latter is of particular interest because it suggests the range of jurisdictions in which North Korean activities are hiding.

Designating and ultimately expelling North Koreans working abroad in commercial positions was a clearly stated objective of Secretary Tillerson’s UNSC speech in late April. The four designated entities include two trading companies—Kanbong Trading and Korea Kumsan Trading—as well as the Koryo Bank. Koryo provides domestic financial services, and rolled out a debit card in 2011. On the external front, however, it is believed to be associated with Offices 38 and 39 that service the court economy, although a search of SWIFT codes suggests that it only has one branch in Pyongyang.

The charitable interpretation of the resolution is that it shows a Chinese and Russian willingness to cooperate with the US and to openly condemn the North Korean nuclear program: the resolution makes reference to the “flagrant disregard” of past resolutions. In his important speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue—which we will dissect separately—Secretary Mattis underscored the ongoing Trump-Xi honeymoon. The administration was “encouraged by China's renewed commitment to work with the international community toward denuclearization.”

On the other hand, the designation of a number of officials who appear to operate domestically, companies that may or may not be found, and a bank that should already be sanctioned under UNSC measures with respect to banking seem of marginal practical effect. China took the opportunity to remind everyone of the “suspension for suspension proposal,” and the whole exercise came in the wake of a depressing summit between Foreign Ministers Sergei Lavrov and Wang Yi in which THAAD received as much attention as the North Korean missile and nuclear program.

In the end, however, the US currently holds one important trump card, if we can be excused the pun. If North Korea shows no sign of interest in negotiating, the onus appears to be on China. Incremental measures such as these might be the best the US can do at this point as it engages in strategic patience, despite protests to the contrary.

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