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China and Russia Veto US Bid to Impose Further UN Sanctions on DPRK

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China and Russia have vetoed a US-led UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution that proposed tougher sanctions on North Korea after the country’s latest ballistic missile tests. This marked the first split in the Council since measures were introduced against Pyongyang in 2006. The drafted resolution came in light of the 23 ballistic missiles the DPRK has launched in the last year, all of which violated previous UN resolutions. 

As permanent UNSC members, Russia and China exercise vetoes over any proposed resolutions. The final vote rested 13-2 in favor of the tightened sanctions. “For the first time in 15 years, a UNSC member has used a veto to stop the council from fulfilling its responsibility to hold the DPRK accountable for its unlawful proliferation,” the US ambassador to the UN said. 

UN sanctions on DPRK

China’s ambassador to the UN argued that instead of stopping its weapons program, new sanctions on North Korea may instead increase its level of testing. Ambassador Zhang Jun also said new sanctions could put further pressure on the humanitarian situation in the DPRK as it grapples with the effects of the COVID pandemic. Russia’s ambassador similarly cited the pandemic as a reason for its veto, noting sanctions had so far failed to bring about a change in behavior from North Korea. 

“The introduction of new sanctions against North Korea is a path to a dead-end,” said Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia. “We have stressed the ineffectiveness and the inhumanity of further strengthening the sanctions pressure on Pyongyang.”

Since 2006 the UNSC has passed many resolutions sanctioning the DPRK for developing nuclear weapons and related activities, including bans on the trade of weapons and military equipment, restricting scientific cooperation, and freezing the assets of people involved in the nuclear program. Over the years the Security Council has steadily, and unanimously, increased sanctions to stop North Korea from funding its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Sanctions on Pyongyang were last tightened in 2017.

The UN Panel of Expert report on North Korea that is published annually provides an important overview of the latest geopolitical challenges related to the country. The last version, published in March 2022, documents tactics used by DPRK to evade sanctions, including the use of shipyards to disguise its vessels, cyber activities involving stolen identities and payment exchanges using goods such as coal to pay for fertilizer. 

Wider sanctions challenges 

The UNSC split highlights both the power and the difficulty of ensuring sanctions are enacted in a coordinated way. This was noted in a recent comprehensive review of US sanctions by the Treasury. Such divisions have also been evident over sanctions on Russia, where almost all measures have been enacted at the state level, leaving the UN on the sidelines.

Over the next two weeks, the UN General Assembly will discuss North Korea under a new rule that requires the 193-member body to meet every time a veto is cast by one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. Additional UN sanctions do however appear unlikely. 

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Originally published June 1, 2022, updated June 1, 2022

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