China’s Resolve to Be Tested Over North Korea Sanctions

United Nations diplomats are weighing how much Chinese opposition they may face to further UN sanctions on North Korea if it conducts a third nuclear blast, which South Korea says appears imminent.

An underground nuclear test by Kim Jong Un’s regime would be met with a “very firm and strong” response by the Security Council, South Korea’s UN envoy, Kim Sook, said yesterday in New York after taking over the monthly presidency of the UN’s decision-making body. A test “seems to be imminent,” he said.

A key factor in the extent of the Security Council’s response will be the position of China, one of the five permanent members having veto power and North Korea’s biggest benefactor.

“The politics of this will be: what will the Chinese go for and how quickly will council action be imposed,” said George Lopez, a former UN sanctions investigator on North Korea. “Right now the Chinese exhibit a concerned and somewhat angry posture to North Korea. But this may fade, especially if the Americans and the Brits try for overreach.”

The U.S. and its allies have said they’re ready for a quick response if North Korea’s defiance escalates from a rocket launch to a nuclear test.

China dropped its opposition to a binding resolution adopted last month that chastised North Korea, one of the world’s most isolated nations, for its December rocket launch in violation of a missile test ban and warned the North’s leadership of further consequences unless its nuclear program is suspended.

China’s Mood

Still, China has resisted in the past when measures that actually bite were on the table. It would demonstrate a discernible shift away from North Korea if China supported tough measures, such as inspections of North Korean goods coming through its Dalian harbor and land borders.

“It would give us a sense of their anger, disdain and goal of reasserting themselves” into the North Korea nuclear equation, said Lopez, a professor at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

Lopez said a bold move -- still probably too controversial in testing the limits of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations -- would be to call on UN member states hosting North Korean embassies to scrutinize the movements and baggage of North Korean diplomats. Such actions would be aimed at hitting the North Korean elite and imposing an additional obstacle to embargo-evading technology trafficking.

Black Market

Two UN diplomats, who asked to not be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, said that a sizable number of North Korean diplomats are used as conduits for the purchase of luxury goods and the smuggling of high-end technology barred under previous UN sanctions. Those individuals, protected by diplomatic immunity, can move freely with bags of money, so cutting off that cash flow would make a difference, the officials said.

Successive reports by a UN panel of experts investigating North Korea have highlighted the ways the regime bypasses detection and pinpointed how some countries, which were not named, are not fully cooperating with the UN.

The regime “can probably create aliases for entities involved in illicit trade faster” than a UN sanction committee can designate them, said a report released in June.

“Overall implementation of the sanctions leaves much to be desired,” according to the report. “The panel knows of some instances in which member states conducted inspections but have not yet reported them.”

Regime’s Intentions

If the explosion is a uranium-based test, the UN officials expect Iranians to be in attendance, further underlining the ties between the two pariah states.

In that scenario, the U.S. and its European allies may consider seeking a ban on all flights from Iran to North Korea or travel bans on scientists and engineers who would visit North Korea, according to Lopez. The Security Council may also try to penalize any state that facilitates such movement of experts.

The nation conducted its two prior atomic tests in 2006 and 2009 at the Punggye-ri nuclear site, about 370 kilometers (230 miles) northeast of the capital, Pyongyang. Both those actions were met with UN sanctions resolutions.

A third test is not a foregone conclusion and the regime may be bluffing. Trying to anticipate the regime’s next steps has become harder since, according to Yonhap News, North Korea put a cover over the entrance of a tunnel at the site to evade satellite monitoring.

South Korea thinks that arrangements for a test are “nearly complete,” according to Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok. The U.S. and South Korea begin joint naval exercises this week in waters east of the Korean peninsula.

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