Russia Finally Says ‘Nyet’ to Continued DPRK Sanctions Enforcement

Last week, a United Nations Security Council resolution to extend the mandate for the UN Panel of Experts on DPRK sanctions was vetoed by the Russian Federation, effectively disbanding the primary enforcement mechanism for the nine rounds of sanctions that have been imposed on the DPRK since 2006, in response to their repeated nuclear and ICBM tests.

On October 9th, 2006, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) conducted their first successful test of a nuclear weapon.  In response to this, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed resolution 1718, condemning the DPRK for the test, and imposing a harsh regime of sanctions on the regime.  Subsequent to a second test on May 25, 2009, they unanimously passed resolution 1874, which tightened the sanctions regime significantly and established a “Panel of Experts” to “gather, examine and analyze information…regarding the implementation of the measures imposed”, for an initial period of one year.  As more and more sanctions resolutions were passed in response to further nuclear and ICBM tests, the mandate for this Panel of Experts was unanimously extended each year until last week.

Leading up to the vote, China and Russia had proposed a compromise to extend the mandate of the Panel of Experts for one year, conditional on adding a sunset clause to the sanctions regime, as the Chinese delegate said “Sanctions should not be set in stone or be indefinite”.  The Russian delegate argued that the situation in Korea had changed enormously since 2006, and that continuing the sanctions in the name of preventing the DPRK from becoming a nuclear power was “losing its relevance” and was “detached from reality”.

It is rather ironic that the United States and its allies have been criticizing the Russia veto of an otherwise unanimous Security Council resolution as destabilizing, given that the US routinely uses its own veto power, as most followers of this site are well aware.  This Russian application of its veto power has been described as a crisis for the “broader functioning of the UN Security Council and the post World War II international order”, even though it is completely obvious that we would have used our veto against any Russian or Chinese resolution to relax or discontinue the sanctions regime.

The sanctions imposed on the DPRK obviously did not have the desired effect of deterring them from becoming a nuclear power.  It is fair to ask why they failed to achieve the desired outcome, and whether continuing sanctions are likely to alter that reality.  When I accompanied retired NBA superstar Dennis Rodman to North Korea, Kim Jong Un personally explained his logic to us.  He remarked that Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi had given up his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs in 2003, in exchange for sanctions relief and security guarantees that weren’t worth the paper they were written on.  As soon as the opportunity presented itself, in Spring 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joyfully bragged that we had killed Qaddafi.

Furthermore, Saddam Hussein had allowed weapons inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency into his country, and they failed to find evidence of WMD programs (as there were none), and yet despite this, the US launched a war of regime change in 2003, which subsequently led to the death of Saddam Hussein.  He concluded his argument by pointing out the fact that although Pakistan harbored America’s number one enemy, Osama bin Laden, the US never attempted a war of regime change there.  In his mind the main difference was obvious – Pakistan was a nuclear power.

Given that the United States government has never been subtle about its desire for regime change in North Korea, and has refused to take first use of nuclear weapons by the United States off the table in the event of war with the DPRK, Kim Jong Un’s rationale is quite compelling.  I certainly had no counterargument.

One must remember that the number one goal for the North Korean regime is their own survival, and Kim Jong Un’s strategic decisions (like those of any other political leader) should be evaluated in that context – obviously his priority is to stay alive and keep his job!  With that in mind, the continued pursuit of a nuclear deterrent seems like the most rational option.  Of course he wants a better life for his people, and relief from economic sanctions, but not at the cost of risking the regime’s collapse.

It is important to clarify that long before the DPRK developed its nuclear program, the US had already nuclearized the peninsula.  Although Paragraph 13 (d) of the Korean War Armistice Agreement forbade the introduction of any new weapons into Korea, in 1958, the Eisenhower administration deployed nuclear weapons to South Korea, in clear violation of this agreement.

This was not an isolated incident either, as the US has a long history of breaking negotiated deals with rival nations.  In 1994, Bill Clinton negotiated the “Agreed Framework” in which the DPRK would shut down their graphite-moderated nuclear reactors, to be replaced with light water reactors (LWRs) to be provided by the US, with supplies of heavy oil being provided to them to provide energy in the interim.  George W. Bush then slow-walked providing the LWRs and stopped the shipments of fuel oil, leading the DPRK to restart the reactors to supply energy to their people.

Bush then made the aforementioned WMD deal with Qaddafi, which the Obama administration failed to honor.  Obama then negotiated the JCPOA deal with Iran, which Trump backed out of.  Trump then opened dialogue with the DPRK, but the Biden administration quickly returned to “strategic patience” (i.e. giving them the silent treatment).

No wonder they feel the need for a nuclear deterrent when our policy changes so dramatically every four years, making any negotiations effectively pointless.  As Kim Jong Un told us, the DPRK policy is always consistent, but the US changes all the time, adding that if they don’t like what is happening, they just wait four years.  After we brought a team of NBA players to Pyongyang in 2014, he further remarked that in doing so, we were the first Americans who ever kept their word.  No wonder they don’t trust any security guarantees the US has offered them.

Sanctions have been referred to as war by other means (with apologies to Clausewitz), and the US now has sanctions in place against more than 20 countries across Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America.  The most comprehensive sanctions are currently imposed against Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela, with sanctions against China growing at an alarming rate.  At the same time, the Chinese Yuan is being used increasingly for international trade instead of the US dollar as a result of sanctions prohibiting many countries from using the US financial system.

The height of the sanctions absurdity was best illustrated when the DPRK was alleged to have sold ammunition to Russia in early 2024.   In response to this allegation, the US complained to Russia that they were violating sanctions against the DPRK, and the US complained to the DPRK that they were violating sanctions against Russia.  Does the United States expect other countries to just starve to death under sanctions regimes because we said so?

Is it perhaps more rational to imagine that our overuse of economic sanctions will inevitably create trading blocs and alliances among the countries subjected to them?  Iran, Russia, China, and the DPRK have plenty of reasons to dislike one another.  China and Russia have had a complex hostile relationship for centuries, with Chairman Mao seeking a better relationship with the US partially because he feared a Soviet invasion.  Both China and Russia repeatedly voted in favor of all the sanctions imposed on the DPRK since 2006, because they did not want a nuclear North Korea in their backyard. Iran and Russia have a long history of tensions, as do Iran and China.  And Iran and DPRK have only worked together in a partnership of convenience for the last 35 years because of their shared status as pariahs in the eyes of the USA.

Despite the historical tensions between Iran, Russia, China, and DPRK, the sanctions regime has forced these countries into an alliance and trading bloc of convenience, and the US has nobody to blame but themselves.  It should surprise nobody that China and Russia want to get the UN out of the DPRK sanctions business.  That Russia finally vetoed the continuing mandate for the Panel of Experts should come as no surprise – the only surprise is that it took them 18 years to get there.

Joseph D. Terwilliger is Professor of Neurobiology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, where his research focuses on natural experiments in human genetic epidemiology.  He is also active in science and sports diplomacy, having taught genetics at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, and accompanied Dennis Rodman on six “basketball diplomacy” trips to Asia since 2013.