North Korea’s nuclear aspirations have been an object of concern for many western nations for the past few decades. Since 2006, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has adopted five resolutions that place sanctions on North Korea. These sanctions were created with the hope that if North Korea could be starved of its key resources such as jet fuel and coal, it would be unable to continue with its nuclear program. The latest of these sanctions was announced just this past month in UNSC resolution 2270 after North Korea’s highly publicized nuclear test on January 6, 2016 and satellite launch on February 7, 2016. UNSC resolution 2270, like previous resolutions, seeks to continue sanctions on jet fuel and coal by not allowing any agreeing parties to ship said resources or giving the North Korean government room to make financial transactions abroad to be used for the proliferation of nuclear armaments. UNSC resolution 2270, like previous resolutions, will mostly lead to no significant changes in the demeanor of the North Korean government. All of these resolutions have failed to make any significant impact (and thus have necessitated future resolutions) because they have all failed to gain major support from North Korea’s biggest trading partner: China. Generally, in the past, even if China voiced sentiment supporting these sanctions in some form or another, they would still allow their ships to trade with North Korea unimpeded.
So when, just yesterday, China officially announced sanctions towards North Korea, people everywhere were ecstatic. China has had growing tensions with North Korea regarding its nuclear program and has in recent times tried to distance itself from the dysfunctional regime. So, these sanctions seem like the natural culmination of China’s fraught relationship with North Korea. Even today, China has voiced its dissatisfaction with North Korea and has stated that it can no longer be allowed to continue its nuclear development. These sanctions specifically will ban trade of coal, iron ore, iron, gold, titanium and rare earths and is being hailed by many as a positive step forward in regards to North Korea, but also in terms of China-US relations.
Unfortunately, I personally don’t believe that these sanctions are not as big of a leap forward as many are making them out to be. I agree that they are a step in the right direction, but only that: a step. This is because of the loopholes left open by China in these sanctions. For example, China has stated that the trade of “coals and minerals” is alright as long as the money is being used for the “livelihood” of North Korean citizens and not for Nuclear armament. On paper this simply reads as “we are sanctioning you guys, but we understand the need to be humanitarian.” In reality, this is also China’s way of extending a lifeline to North Korea, ensuring that it doesn’t fall completely under the pressure of the sanctions. Coal is a vital resource for North Korea as it is one of their biggest exports. The trade of coal allows North Korea to barter for essentials such as food, oil and machinery. Therefore, permitting coal trade means that the North Korean government can exploit this loophole and still keep its coffers full, even though the trade of actual financial assets may be limited abroad. If this loophole was for something minor, it wouldn’t be nearly as important, but given that it involves coal, it greatly reduces the actual impact of any sanctions China imposes on North Korea.
I don’t believe that this definitely means China is being facetious about its anti-North Korean sentiment. I believe that this loophole was allowed primarily for China’s own sanity. If coal is not allowed to be traded at all, it could lead to a massive collapse of North Korea’s economy, which could cause massive instability in the region as refugees begin to run away from North Korea to get food and other key resources. In that regard, this loophole actually fits with China’s stated goals. China has never stated that it wants to remove the North Korean government; it simply wants to maintain stability in the region. So, if it can prevent North Korea from nuclear proliferation (through sanctions on fuel) while preventing the collapse of the small nation’s economy (by allowing coal), it will have achieved a step towards greater stability.
Pulkit Kashyap is a sophomore CS & Economics double major in the College of Arts and Sciences. Pulkit loves to watch superhero tv shows, read books on just about anything and swim. Global Impact appears on Wednesdays this semester. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.