The United Nations Security Council has imposed strong new economic sanctions on North Korea, notable for the unqualified participation of China. Previous Chinese government reluctance to participate was not publicly evident this time.
South Korea has also been an active participant. That is important in a complex diplomatic duel with North Korea, addressing both security and economic concerns.
Ambassador Nikki Haley, the top U.S. representative to UN, was visible in actively negotiating with China’s representative, Liu Jieyi. Presumably, this is the tip of an array of private interchange and negotiation. President Donald Trump appropriately tweeted praise for the participation of Russia and China in the vote and noted, “Very big financial impact!”
The new sanctions under Resolution 2371 impose a total ban on North Korea’s exports of coal, iron, lead and seafood. Travel is banned and assets frozen for 14 officials and four entities. This significantly ratchets up pressure on Pyongyang, which relies increasingly on black markets for desperately needed money. Monitoring and enforcement of a total ban will be easier.
Beyond Pyongyang’s fanatical and apocalyptic rhetoric, evidence is apparent that the regime is feeling great long-term strain. In May 2016, North Korea held a Communist Party Congress. Tight security control of the enormous choreographed show was utterly self-evident. The last such party congress was in 1980, an occasion for regime founder Kim Il-sung to indicate succession of power to his son Kim Jong-il.
The Communist Party Congress took place in the context of continuing tension, punctuated by occasional violence and aggressive moves regarding South Korea. In 2013, North Korea announced a “state of war” with South Korea and threatened nuclear attack.
Pyongyang abruptly abrogated the 1953 armistice agreement ending the Korean War and cut the military “hot line” communications link with the south.
Developments in recent years could have been the prelude to war, yet there is no concrete evidence that North Korea has been mobilizing to invade South Korea. Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities increase but remain rudimentary.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson provides an appropriate style, firm but calm. The day after the UN vote, he and Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha of South Korea joined in praising the outcome at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the Philippines that included China and North Korea.
ASEAN represents a growing network of regional entities reinforcing the UN and associated global institutions. In July 2016, an international tribunal in The Hague supported the Philippines in a major maritime dispute with China.
Preparation for war is essential regarding North Korea, but there is still no need to assume war will happen. The Korean War Armistice has held for 64 years.