This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
The United States has clashed with China and Russia at the United Nations over their call for an easing of sanctions against North Korea.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told a UN Security Council meeting on September 27 that recent “positive developments” in relations between North and South Korea — combined with warmer U.S.-North Korean ties — should lead to relief from some of the strict sanctions passed by the council last year to push Pyongyang into talks over its nuclear weapons program.
Russia backed China’s call to review the sanctions, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying they should not become a kind of “collective punishment” and arguing that it is time to send a positive signal to Pyongyang to encourage concessions.
“Steps by the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] toward gradual disarmament should be followed by an easing of sanctions,” Lavrov said.
But U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, backed by Western allies on the council, opposed the calls for easing, saying the sanctions should continue to be strictly enforced until North Korea actually takes concrete steps to abandon its nuclear weapons.
Pompeo — who will pay his third visit to Pyongyang next month — voiced hope for the “dawn of a new day” on the Korean Peninsula. But he said it was the stiff UN sanctions which brought North Korea to the negotiating table in the first place, and there should be no let-up in pressure.
“Enforcement of UN Security Council sanctions must continue vigorously and without fail until we realize final, fully verified denuclearization,” he said.
“The members of this Council must set the example on that effort, and we must all hold each other accountable.”
While China and Russia claimed North Korea has been complying with the sanctions, Pompeo maintained they have been repeatedly violated and Pyongyang already has exceeded its annual cap on oil imports this year through secretive transfers of oil at sea.
The United States has presented the council with what it says is evidence of transfers of refined petroleum products between ships at sea, and has also accused North Korea of illegally exporting coal to fund its weapons program.
Washington has accused Russia of being involved in the illegal fuel transfers, but Russia and China teamed up this summer to block its move to bar further sales of oil to Pyongyang this year, saying they needed to study the U.S. allegations.
Russia has also balked as U.S. attempts to further tighten sanctions, raising objections along with China last month when the United States proposed to add a Russian bank and North Korean bankers based in Moscow to a UN blacklist.
Lavrov said it was “inappropriate and untimely” for the United States and its partners to “impose a course of tightening sanctions” when North Korea has “taken important steps” toward denuclearization.
“It seems it would be logical to strengthen this momentum,” said Lavrov, adding that any further tightening of sanctions could “bring extreme socioeconomic and humanitarian suffering.”
China is embroiled in a major trade dispute with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, but it has welcomed his outreach to North Korea.
Both Russia and China have long pushed for Washington and Pyongyang to resolve their differences through diplomacy.
“China firmly believes that pressure is not the end,” Wang said. “Both implementing sanctions and promoting political settlement are equally important.”
North Korean representatives attended the security council session, but they did not ask to address the meeting.
Pompeo met with his North Korean counterpart, Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, on September 26 and called the talks “very positive.”
Trump has heaped praise on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, one of the world’s most repressive autocrats, and this week claimed that the negotiations he launched with North Korea in June prevented a war.
Trump met Kim in June in the first-ever summit between the two countries, which never signed a peace treaty ending the Korean war in the 1950s.
But with no visible evidence since that meeting that North Korea has dismantled its nuclear weapons or facilities, many analysts doubt that North Korea has shifted more than rhetorically since agreeing to the talks.
It already had refined its arsenal through six nuclear tests since 2006 and repeated ballistic missile launches before it agreed to stop testing during the negotiations.
The United States is also hearing calls for step-by-step sanctions relief from ally South Korea, whose left-leaning President Moon Jae-in helped arrange Trump’s diplomatic drive.
That view is not shared by Japan, which is calling for the complete and verified disarming of North Korea as a condition for lifting any sanctions.
Trump is seeking a second summit in the near future, which Pompeo will seek to arrange while in Pyongyang.
Pompeo said that North Korea would enjoy a “much brighter future” if Kim fulfills promises to the United States to give up its nuclear and ballistic missile program.
“But the path to peace and a brighter future is only through diplomacy and denuclearization,” Pompeo said.