14 February 2017
North Korea: 2016 in review and the challenges of 2017
Ian K. Bolton, Research Associate Interdictions and PSI
2016 was an exceptionally busy year for the world of counter-proliferation (CP); in January, Implementation Day of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran was reached. By November, the United Nations’ First Committee voted to begin negotiations in 2017 on a global legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons for all countries. However, it was North Korean events which were the most dramatic.
On 6 January 2016, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test, with a yield believed to be in the region of 10 kilotons. The nuclear test was widely condemned; notably China seemed to be genuinely angered by the test. Before the world had been able to respond through the United Nations, North Korea escalated matters. On 7 February, North Korea confirmed it had launched a long-range rocket from its Sohae site, claiming the rocket was carrying a satellite for its space program. However under Security Council resolutions, North Korea is prohibited from conducting any such activity which is contributing to their ballistic missile programme.
The International Community delivered its response to the January nuclear test on 2 March, passing a new UN Security Council Resolution – UNSCR 2270. This resolution created one of the most wide‑ranging sanctions regimes against North Korea in the UN’s history. The restrictions adopted under UNSCR 2270 are broad and include entire sectors, such as coal and iron ore. The exception to these restrictions were when they would impact on the livelihoods of North Korean nationals. UNSCR 2270 also introduced an obligation on UN Member States to inspect all cargoes originating in, or destined for, North Korea.
Before the ink of UNSCR 2270 was dry, North Korea was once again challenging the resolve of the International Community. On 15 April, they tested the Musudan Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile. Although the test was seen by the CP community as having failed, this was indicative of things to come. On 23 April, North Korea tested a Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile. By the end of August there been 7 further ballistic missile tests, ranging in their success. One North Korean watcher described this pattern of testing as Mr. Kim having ‘missile lust’, and not giving up on efforts to develop them further.
The next significant provocation came on 9 September when the regime conducted their fifth and largest‑to‑date nuclear test. The test sparked international condemnation and heightened tensions across the region, with the US conducting an overflight of South Korea by two US B-1B Strategic Bombers. Once again the International Community looked to take decisive action. On 30 November 2016, the UN Security Council passed a new resolution, UNSCR 2321, which built on UNSCR 2270.
Adopted unanimously by the UN Security Council, resolution UNSCR 2321 tightened even further the sanctions and controls on North Korea. The new resolution looked to address some of the issues which had come to light in the aftermath of UNSCR 2270, such as easy work-arounds on sectoral sanctions. New restrictions were put in place on mineral sectors, including copper, nickel, silver and zinc. The amount of coal North Korea could export was also restricted to defined amounts. It introduced restrictions on North Korean workers based overseas, as well as the provision of statues from North Korea. Additionally the UNSCR raised concerns about the activities of North Korean diplomatic missions and holdings and how these could be misused. All in all UNSCR 2270 and UNSCR 2321 together have created one of the most extensive UN sanctions regimes ever to be passed.
Challenges in 2017
It is clear that international condemnation, pressure and sanctions have not deterred North Korea from carrying out further provocations. Proof of this can be seen in the ballistic missile test that took place yesterday, 12 February 2017. The successful testing of the Pukguksong-2 missile will be an early test of the International Community’s resolve and ability to respond. Indeed satellite imagery and evidence suggests North Korea has restarted its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, the reactor used to produce plutonium for North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. This action would seem to indicate North Korea is preparing to conduct further nuclear tests.
The Trump administration has been sabre rattling in the region, both during the recent visit by Defence Secretary Mattis, in President Trump’s tweets, and during the visit of the Japanese Prime Minister. The critical question is what will the International Community, and the Trump administration, do in response to further provocations? It is hard to see what further scope there is for tightening sanctions on North Korea, and were such tightening to be suggested there would be concern regarding the humanitarian impact, a key concern for many countries, including Russia and China. Trump has already pointed the finger at China for failing to control North Korea, but traditionally China has resisted pressure to tighten its sanctions implementation. Given the antagonistic relationship between Trump and China so far, the US may undertake some form of unilateral military action against North Korea, though highly unlikely. Apart from further sanctions and possible military action, the best hope for a change in direction is the potential restarting of 6-party talks; the US administration has said they are willing to talk to North Korea. In practice it is difficult to see what this could accomplish, but the same was said by many before the start of Iran talks.
Another key challenge in 2017 will be the full implementation of both UNSCRs 2270 and 2321. UNSCR 2321 followed so quickly on the heels of UNSCR 2270 that many countries have not yet fully implemented UNSCR 2270, and as such have not submitted implementation reports to the UN as set out in the resolution. Individual national legislation will need to be adopted by many in order to enforce the sanctions. This legislation will need to give countries powers to seize vessels and cargoes as prescribed by the UNSCRs. Countries will need legislation and capacity to allow all cargoes going to, or originating in, North Korea to be inspected. Furthermore, countries will need to ensure they can inspect cargo travelling via land and rail transportation, as well as sea and air, an often overlooked area. For many countries, especially in South East Asia given the high traffic of North Korean activity, there may be a need to dramatically increase customs enforcement capacity. Countries will need to be able to enforce the sectoral controls introduced by the UNSCRs, this will include an ability to analyse and identify what materials/ores they may be dealing with and if they are sanctioned.
Even more complicated will be how restrictions on coal, which essentially provides export limits, will actually be enforced, especially by China, North Korea’s biggest coal customer. North Korea watchers are already pointing out the potential frailties of this. Domestic ship, registries, agents, insurers and companies will need to be looked at to ensure they are not misused by North Koreans. Countries will also need to examine their ship registries to de-list North Korean owned, operated or controlled vessels. Countries will need to take action to prevent public and private financial support to North Korea by persons or entities within their jurisdiction, unless by prior approval of the UN North Korean Sanctions Committee. And all of this is just a snapshot of the many new obligations and capacities countries will have to undertake.
Given this huge implementation challenge, the international community, and in particular countries like the US and UK, along with institutions, such as the European Union and United Nations, must have a focus on providing critical assistance to other countries, especially those with limited enforcement capacity. It is this that really will be the biggest challenge of 2017. Without this, having extensive and wide ranging sanctions on North Korea is worthless.
 Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Business Insider: http://uk.businessinsider.com/timeline-of-north-korea-tests-2016-10?r=US&IR=T/#february-7-the-rogue-regime-fires-a-long-range-rocket-2.
 Currently just over 60 countries have completed implementation reports of UNSCR2270 as evidence on the UN website: https://www.un.org/sc/suborg/en/sanctions/1718/implementation-reports.