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U.N. Security Council approves watered-down additional sanctions against North Korea

AP, Bloomberg, Kyodo

The U.N. Security Council on Monday unanimously approved new sanctions on North Korea but not the toughest-ever measures sought by the Trump administration to ban all oil imports and freeze international assets of the government and its leader, Kim Jong Un.

The resolution, responding to Pyongyang’s sixth and strongest nuclear test explosion on Sept. 3, does ban North Korea from importing all natural gas liquids and condensates. It also bans all textile exports and prohibits any country from authorizing new work permits for North Korean workers — two key sources of hard currency for the hermit nation.

As for energy, it caps Pyongyang’s imports of crude oil at the level of the last 12 months, and it limits the import of refined petroleum products to 2 million barrels a year.

The watered-down resolution does not include sanctions that the U.S. wanted on North Korea’s national airline and the army.

Nonetheless, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told the council after the vote that “these are by far the strongest measures ever imposed on North Korea.” But she stressed that “these steps only work if all nations implement them completely and aggressively.”

Haley noted that the council was meeting on the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack. In a clear message to North Korean threats to attack the U.S., she said: “We will never forget the lesson that those who have evil intentions must be confronted.”

“Today we are saying the world will never accept a nuclear armed North Korea,” she added. “We are done trying to prod the regime to do the right thing” and instead are taking steps to prevent it “from doing the wrong thing.”

Haley said the U.S. does not take pleasure in strengthening sanctions and reiterated that the U.S. does not want war.

“The North Korean regime has not yet passed the point of no return,” she said. “If it agrees to stop its nuclear program it can reclaim its future. If it proves it can live in peace, the world will live in peace with it. . . . If North Korea continues its dangerous path, we will continue with further pressure.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday welcomed the new sanctions resolution, saying that it is important to change North Korea’s policy by imposing a higher level of pressure on the country than ever before.

“I highly appreciate the fact that this strong resolution, which applies markedly stringent sanctions measures, was unanimously and rapidly adopted,” Abe said in a statement released shortly after Monday’s vote.

“This has made clear the will of the international community that we must strengthen pressure to a new level and make North Korea change its policies,” he added.

The final agreement was reached after negotiations between the U.S. and China, the North’s ally and major trading partner. Haley said the resolution never would have happened without the “strong relationship” between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

But its provisions are a significant climb-down from the very tough sanctions the Trump administration proposed last Tuesday, especially on oil, where a complete ban could have crippled North Korea’s economy.

The cap on the import of petroleum products could have an impact, but North Korea will still be able to import the same amount of crude oil that is has this year.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, China supplies most of North Korea’s crude oil imports, which a U.S. official put at 4 million barrels a year. The agency cited U.N. customs data showing that China reported sending 6,000 barrels a day of oil products to North Korea, which it said is mostly gasoline and diesel fuel vital to the country’s agriculture, transportation and military sectors.

That would mean North Korea imports nearly 2.2 million barrels a year in petroleum products, so the 2 million barrel cap in the resolution would represent a 10 percent cut. But the U.S. official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said North Korea now receives about 4.5 million barrels of refined petroleum products, which would mean a more than 50 percent cut.

The textile ban is significant. Textiles are North Korea’s main source of export revenue after coal, iron, seafood and other minerals that have already been severely restricted by previous U.N. resolutions. North Korean textile exports in 2016 totaled $752.5 million, accounting for about a quarter of its total $3 billion in merchandise exports, according to South Korean government figures.

Haley said the Trump administration believes the new sanctions combined with previous measures will ban over 90 percent of North Korea’s exports reported in 2016.

As for North Koreans working overseas, the U.S. Mission said a cutoff on new work permits will eventually cost North Korea about $500 million a year once current work permits expire. The U.S. estimates about 93,000 North Koreans are currently working abroad, the U.S. official said.

The original U.S. draft would have ordered all countries to impose an asset freeze and travel ban on Kim Jong Un and four other top party and government officials. The resolution adopted Monday adds only one person to the sanctions list — Pak Yong Sik, a member of the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Military Commission, which controls the country’s military and helps direct its military industries.

The original U.S. draft would also have frozen the assets of North Korea’s state-owned airline Air Koryo, the Korean People’s Army and five other powerful military and party entities. The resolution adds only the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the party’s powerful Organization and Guidance Department and its Propaganda and Agitation Department to the sanctions blacklist.

“Despite the tough talk, the U.S. is willing to water down its demands to get support of Russia and China, and that is a calculation that we are more influential when there is Security Council unity,” said George Lopez, a professor of peace studies at the University of Notre Dame and a former U.N. expert on sanctions against North Korea.

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement early Monday saying it was watching the United States’ moves closely and warned that it was “ready and willing” to respond with measures of its own. It said the U.S. will pay a heavy price if the sanctions proposed by Washington are adopted.

Matthew Rycroft, Britain’s U.N. ambassador, told reporters who questioned the watering down of the initial U.S. text that “there is a significant prize in keeping the whole of the Security Council united.”

Rycroft called the resolution “a very significant set of additional sanctions,” declaring that “we are tightening the screw, and we stand prepared to tighten it further.”

French Ambassador Francois Delattre said, “We are facing not a regional but a global threat, not a virtual but an immediate threat, not a serious but an existential threat.”

“Make no mistake about it,” he said, “our firmness today is our best antidote to the risk of war, to the risk of confrontation, and our firmness today is our best tool for a political solution tomorrow.”

China and Russia had called for a resolution focused on a political solution to the escalating crisis over North Koreas nuclear program. They have proposed a freeze-for-freeze that would halt North Korean nuclear and missile tests in exchange for the U.S. and South Korea stopping their joint military exercises — but the Trump administration has rejected that.

China’s U.N. ambassador, Liu Jieyi, said Beijing has been making “unremitting efforts” to denuclearize and maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

Liu again urged the council to adopt the freeze-for-freeze proposal and said talks with North Korea are needed “sooner rather than later.” He expressed hope that the United States will pledge not to seek regime change or North Korea’s collapse.

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia went further, making clear that while Russia supported the resolution, it was not entirely satisfied with the council’s approach.

He said the “unwillingness” of the U.S. to reaffirm pledges not to seek regime change or war in North Korea or to include the idea of having U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres use his good offices to try to resolve the dispute “gives rise to very serious questions in our minds.”

“We’re convinced that diverting the gathering menace from the Korean Peninsula could be done not through further and further sanctions, but by political means,” he said.

The resolution does add new language urging “further work to reduce tensions so as to advance the prospects for a comprehensive settlement.” It retains language reaffirming support for long-stalled six-party talks with that goal involving North Korea, the U.S., Russia, China, Japan and South Korea.

Still, there were concerns that the way forward on the North Korean nuclear crisis remained muddled.

“The West needs to convince the world that they have a goal that is realistic and there is a plan beyond just adding sanctions,” said Andrea Berger, a North Korea expert at Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “Beyond sanctions there is not much cohesion as to the path ahead.”