The United Nations Security Council has unanimously approved the toughest sanctions against North Korea in two decades, though some critics say they still do not go far enough and will be hard to police.
The fresh sanctions, approved Wednesday in New York, come on the heels of the hermit kingdom’s recent nuclear test and rocket launch, which angered the international community.
The move highlighted closer cooperation between the United States and China after weeks of negotiations, but its efficacy hinges on whether and how much China, Pyongyang’s biggest economic partner, and Russia would enforce it.
The new U.N. sanctions include an export ban on jet fuel to North Korea and restrictions on the import of minerals, including coal, iron ore, gold, and titanium.
The resolution mandates that U.N. member states inspect any cargo bound for or from North Korea that passes through their territories, a step up on previous sanctions that required inspections only when there is reasonable suspicion that the cargo is carrying contraband items. The resolution also bans member states from allowing North Korean banks to operate in their countries and bans their banks from holding bank accounts in North Korea, which was previously a request.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday welcomed the stricter sanctions and said the resolution largely reflects what Japan has called for. The country had announced its own sanctions against the North, including a tougher remittances ban.
In apparent defiance of the new sanctions, North Korea launched several short-range projectiles over the Sea of Japan on Thursday.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that the projectiles did not reach Japan, but that Japan continued to be vigilant and was ready to deal with any situation.
Yet some experts and say loopholes still remain despite the beefed up sanctions, after some conditions were added to accommodate requests from China and Russia, which fear that overly stringent measures could threaten the stability of the Korean Peninsula.
One such loophole is that Pyongyang can still import oil and sell minerals, as long as the transactions are for livelihood purposes and not connected to its nuclear weapons programs.
While experts agree the trade ban would deal a huge blow to the North Korean military, the difference between livelihood purposes and military use would be difficult to prove because there is no unified U.N. distinction.
“In this way, China and Russia can control the degree of sanctions,” said Hajime Izumi, professor at the University of Shizuoka.
According to Kotra, the Korean Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, China accounts for 90 percent of North Korean trade. Of this, coal exports to China make up 40 percent, and mineral exports account for 53 percent of North Korea’s $2.5 billion in exports to its neighbor.
Experts agree that the bans would constrain the impoverished nation’s foreign currency reserves and the economy.
But Toshio Miyatsuka, an expert on the North Korean economy, said the sanctions should have called for a complete ban on oil imports from China if they really wanted to suffocate the North Korean economy and compel the nation to compliance.
“The resolution is designed to keep North Korea barely alive, but not to kill,” said Miyatsuka, who is also president of the Korea Institute in Japan.
Critics said previous sanctions were ineffective because member states did not act in concert to enforce them. A recent U.N. report on the enforcement of the previous sanctions reportedly showed that North Korea managed to export arms because U.N. member states, including Security Council members, failed to adequately comply with the sanctions.
Experts say the reality of mandated cargo inspections may prove especially challenging as each country has to upgrade its oversight system to ensure North Korean cargo does not pass under the guise of that from other nations.
Countries, including China and Russia, expressed hope that the sanctions will help bring North Korea back to six-party talks aimed at the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
The talks have been halted since 2008.
Yet critics and experts alike agree that the sanctions will not stop the North’s nuclear development anytime soon amid rising tensions on the peninsula.
The United States is working to deploy a sophisticated missile defense system called THAAD, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, in South Korea. The two countries are next week also scheduled to conduct a joint military exercise, which North Korea has denounced as warfare.
A high-ranking official at the Japanese Foreign Ministry said that North Korea was likely to “various measures,” including launching short-range missiles, until May when it holds a convention of its Workers’ Party for the first time in 36 years.