China’s Implementation Critical to New UN Sanctions on North Korea

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UNSCR 2270, adopted on March 2, is the most stringent North Korea-related UN resolution to date. The measure requires inspections of DPRK vessels and imposes restrictions on banking, the movement of DPRK aircraft, its exports of natural resources, and any DPRK diplomatic personnel who enable the country’s nuclear program.

The Philippines took steps over the weekend to implement the resolution, reportedly seizing a North Korea-affiliated cargo vessel. Reuters reported in February that China also took steps against North Korea prior to the adoption of the resolution, to include freezing North Korean assets. A branch of the China Industrial and Commercial Bank reportedly suspended “all deposits and transfers of foreign currencies in and out of accounts with North Korean names.” South Korean news reported that all financial institutions in Dandong, a commercially important town on China’s border with the DPRK, have now “suspended all money transfers to [the DPRK] at the instruction of Chinese financial authorities.” The report added that “the move makes it impossible for [the DPRK’s] trade officials and hard-currency earners to send money home through official channels.”

The extent of the Government of China’s will to implement UN sanctions against the DPRK remains an open question. According to Foreign Policy, an unpublished UN document shows that an account at a large Chinese state-owned bank may have been used by the DPRK to evade sanctions, utilizing a shipping firm in Singapore to “conceal North Korean payments to operate ships carrying arms and other goods on behalf of Pyongyang.”

Looking forward, we can expect to see a Chinese approach to DPRK sanctions implementation that balances its concerns over the DPRK’s nuclear program with its greater strategic interest in not destabilizing the DPRK government. China remains North Korea’s principal ally, trade partner, and source of food and fuel.