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China, Russia propose lifting sanctions on North Korea for humanitarian purposes at UN Security Council

UN Security Council (Jay Reed/Flickr)
December 18, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

China and Russia Monday made a draft resolution proposing that the U.N. Security Council lift sanctions-mandated bans on North Korean exports of statues, seafood and textiles in what Moscow says is a move to encourage dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington.

The draft also proposed the end of a ban on the dispatch of North Korean workers overseas, and the cancellation of a deadline set in 2017 that requires North Korean workers to be repatriated by next week. The draft would also remove inter-Korean rail and road projects from U.N. sanctions.

“We’re not rushing things,” Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told Reuters. He said the sanctions the draft seeks to eliminate are “not directly related to the North Korea nuclear program, this is a humanitarian issue.”

An official of the U.S. State Department told the news agency that it was not the right time to lift sanctions, because North Korea is “threatening to conduct an escalated provocation, refusing to meet to discuss denuclearization, and continuing to maintain and advance its prohibited weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs.”

Washington-based North Korea experts shared with RFA’s Korean Service differing takes on the strategy behind Moscow and Beijing’s proposal.

“China and Russia have been calling for a lifting of sanctions for at least a year,” said Jung H. Pak, of the Brookings Institution.

“I think that their cooperation now is designed to avoid a confrontation that we saw in 2017 and to show that Beijing and Moscow are players in the North Korean denuclearization process,” said Pak.

But Pak also said that lifting sanctions was not the right move.

“To lift sanctions now, despite dozen rounds of weapons tests since May, the threatening language, and significant steps on denuclearization, would undermine our ultimate goal of getting Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program toward supporting a sustained peace on the Korean Peninsula,” said Pak.

Yun Sun of the Stimson Center said that the move for China and Russia was pushing back at U.S. policies aimed at them.

“I also think China and Russia have an innate desire to counter-balance U.S. current policies toward them through creating more policy leverage,” she said.

“Calling for UN sanction relief on North Korea is unlikely to win U.S. support and get passed at the Security Council. Then the question is why they made the proposal regardless. One possibility is to create more momentum for the dialogue and diplomacy, to play a key role when U.S. fails. But at the same time it will also have the effect of undermining the U.S. current approach,” she added.

But Patrick Cronin of the Hudson Institute saw the draft resolution as a way for Beijing and Moscow to placate Pyongyang.

“The relaxation of selective sanctions serves their interests but could also support an interim U.S.-North Korean agreement based on the principle of partial sanctions relief for partial denuclearization,” he said.

“This relatively modest step could revive diplomacy or, if North Korea offers too little, could catalyze new brinkmanship,” Cronin added.

Meanwhile a South Korean expert saw the move as a genuine effort from China and Russia to deter North Korean aggression.

“Knowing that North Korea could provoke next year, China needed to hold hands with Russia at this point and ask the Security Council to ease sanctions against North Korea to deter or manage North Korea’s provocations,” said Park Byungkwang of the Institute for National Security Strategy.

North Korea’s future negotiation strategy appears to point to greater efforts by Pyongyang to expand its nuclear capacity, said several experts.

“Given the North’s behavior so far, I don’t think it will give up its nuclear program at this stage,” said the Asan Institute for Policy Studies’ Shin Beomchul.

“Through negotiations, they are developing a strategy to obtain concessions from the U.S. to possess nuclear weapons. If that doesn’t work, they will wear out South Korea through armed protest,” Shin said.

Park Jiyoung, also at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies said that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities will continue to grow year by year.

“The international community seems to be adjusting its technical assessment of North Korea’s nuclear program to upwards, recognizing that North Korea has advanced nuclear technology without getting any assistance,” said Park.

“It is now widely believed that North Korea has 40~50 nuclear weapons and can produce up to 100 by year 2030,” Park said.

In order for the draft to be accepted as a resolution, nine of the 15 members of the Security Council must vote in favor of it, and the United States, France, Britain, Russia or China must allow it through without a veto. According to Reuters, it was not immediately clear when or if a vote would be held.