On March 2nd, the UN Security Council unanimously voted to impose the harshest sanctions on North Korea in nearly two decades in a multilateral effort to halt the country’s nuclear program. The leader of the country, Kim Jong Un, has since ordered the North Korean nuclear arsenal be readied for use.
The UN Security Council’s last round of sanctions against North Korea arrived just two short months after North Korea claimed to have successfully detonated its first hydrogen bomb, the country’s fourth nuclear test in the past ten years. These new sanctions, originally proposed by the United States, are designed to inhibit the North Korean nuclear program without causing “adverse humanitarian consequences.” In other words, they intend to punish only the elites surrounding Kim Jong Un. By adding sanctions like a ban on the sell of luxury goods, for instance, it is hoped that they won’t affect the average North Korean struggling under the weight of poverty. The sanctions also ban the country’s exportation of rare earth metals and prohibit North Korean military and police training programs abroad. But North Korea is allowed to continue to buy and sell oil, coal, and iron ore—on the condition that such activities do not benefit North Korea’s nuclear program.
These sanctions are not entirely new and have been in the making for three years, when the United States began to draft a proposal. What makes them unique is China’s role and support throughout the process. But if the United States was long ready to act, the Security Council was not as eager to do so. Because China is one of five states able to veto any action proposed by the UN Security Council (the UN’s most powerful policymaking organ), China was able to successfully delay any UN action against North Korea—until now. For decades, China has protected and defended North Korea in order to prevent security risks necessarily associated with a failed North Korean state on its border (including a migration of North Korean refugees into China, for example). But the small nation’s fourth nuclear test increased China’s fear of a more prominent U.S. presence in the region and a potential degradation of China-South Korea relations.
North Korea’s immediate response to the UN vote was to strengthen North Korean military and nuclear power. Just one day after the approval of the sanctions, Kim Jong Un responded, “the only way for our people to protect sovereignty and rights to live is to strengthen the quality and quantity of nuclear power and realize the balance of power.” This has since been followed by a string of threats by the North Korean government, including a threat to wipe-out Manhattan as well as a threat to “liberate” South Korea through a “blitzkrieg strike.” But most experts are doubtful that North Korea actually possesses a weapon capable of such destruction. While North Korea is known to have detonated an atomic bomb, it seems unlikely that the state has developed a hydrogen bomb given the strength of seismic activity produced by North Korean nuclear tests.
But the overall effectiveness and long-term consequences of these sanctions are still contingent on many factors: for one, on China’s commitment to uphold them. While China supported the sanctions before the Security Council, they will be ineffective if the country fails to properly implement the resolution. Even if China respects the sanctions in their entirety, the general effectiveness of international sanctions is still in question among scholars and diplomats. Some hold out hope that these sanctions will push North Korea towards negotiations. Less severe sanctions were enough to cause Iran to halt nuclear spending. Some scholars, however, argue that international compromise (rather than economic sanctions) were responsible for Iran’s amenability during the discussions leading up to the Iranian Nuclear Deal.
As restrictive as these new sanctions are in limiting North Korea’s economic capabilities and targeting the elites, they do not address the country’s human rights abuses. Described as crimes against humanity in a 2014 UN report, these abuses are not addressed in the sanctions and were only mentioned in passing reference by US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, in her appeal to the Security Council.
In an ideal world, the restrictions on cash flow to the nuclear program would make North Korea pour money into its poverty-stricken. But considering Kim Jong Un’s receptiveness to international interference, this seems unlikely. Even if the sanctions helped the population out of poverty, they wouldn’t have any impact on the most extreme human rights violations in the state: the usage of political prisoner camps.
Perhaps the UN hopes that, in addressing security concerns, these sanctions will naturally cause an improvement in the implementation of human rights as well. Many diplomats argue that security and human rights are increasingly interdependent. A state that does not respect the human rights of their people are unlikely to respect the rights of other states, for example. But to what extent the opposite is true is dubious at best. The message hailing from the UN is clear: an institution once founded “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights” is ready and willing to take action against a nuclear program but will remain silent on the concentration camps in the very same country.