U.N. Toughens Sanctions on North Korea in Response to Its Nuclear Program

UNITED NATIONS — Exasperated with North Korea’s defiant testing of nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously on Wednesday to severely toughen its penalties against the isolated country.

The development also reflected closer cooperation between the United States and China on a longstanding dispute. The 15-member Council approved a resolution, negotiated for weeks by American and Chinese officials, that called for inspecting all cargo going in and out of the country, banning all weapons trade and expanding the list of individuals facing sanctions.

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Diplomats said the resolution contained the most stringent measures yet to undermine the North’s ability to raise money and secure technology and other resources for its nuclear weapons program. Much depends, however, on whether China — North Korea’s leading trade partner and diplomatic shield — will enforce it. Samantha Power, the American ambassador to the United Nations, called the resolution “comprehensive, robust and unyielding,” and said enforcement must be as well.

The Council has sought to hobble North Korea’s nuclear weapons program before, but the country has repeatedly flouted those measures. In January, it conducted its fourth nuclear test and launched a rocket in February, even as diplomats were negotiating the current resolution.

The toughest component would require all countries to inspect all cargo passing through their territory to or from North Korea. Inspections had been required only if there was reasonable suspicion of contraband aboard. The list of banned goods was expanded by the resolution to include luxury watches, Jet Skis and snowmobiles worth more than $2,000. While that may seem inconsequential for such a poor country, Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s ruler, has been known to use such items to curry favor with his fellow elites.

The resolution also requires countries to expel North Korean diplomats accused of illicit activities. It prohibits North Korea from sending martial arts experts to train police officers in foreign countries, as a United Nations panel recently accused Pyongyang of doing in Uganda.

Loopholes remain, however. North Korea can still buy oil and sell its coal and iron ore, as long as such transactions are not used for its nuclear weapons program; compliance would be difficult to prove. Although prices have fallen in recent years, minerals still account for 53 percent of North Korea’s $2.5 billion in exports to China, its chief supplier of oil.

The Obama administration welcomed passage of the resolution, with the spokesman Josh Earnest calling it “a strong message to Pyongyang.”

The administration also announced related actions by the Treasury and State Departments that levied sanctions on five North Korean government entities, including the National Defense Commission, and a dozen North Koreans, including four high-level military officials, for their nuclear and weapons proliferation work. The designation freezes any properties they may have under American jurisdiction and bars American citizens from doing business with them.

“Together, these actions reflect a strong and unified response to North Korea’s provocative, destabilizing and dangerous activities,” Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said in a statement.

The Security Council measure is a narrow, diplomatic convergence between the United States and China. Beijing has repeatedly said it opposes Pyongyang’s development of a nuclear weapons arsenal, and publicly rebuked the North on Wednesday for carrying out nuclear and rocket tests this year in “defiance” of international prohibitions.

China signaled that it saw the resolution as spurring peace talks soon, a goal that was welcomed by nonproliferation advocates. Darryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association said the resolution could be useful as leverage to persuade Pyongyang to return to the bargaining table. But he also criticized the Obama administration’s policy of “insisting on denuclearization as a precondition for talks to halt and reverse North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile capabilities.”

“In the next several weeks, it will be important for Washington and Beijing to communicate to Pyongyang that they are willing to formally resume negotiations,” Mr. Kimball argued.

Beijing has been loath to draw attention to Pyongyang’s human rights abuses, which the United Nations has documented and Washington has emphasized. The new resolution is not explicitly aimed at human rights violations, though Ms. Power made that link in her remarks to the Council.

Referring to widespread malnutrition, Ms. Power accused North Korea on Wednesday of caring more about growing its nuclear weapons program than “growing its children.”

The Chinese ambassador, Liu Jieyi, focused on the North’s Jan. 6 and Feb. 7 tests, done in violation of previous resolutions. He also expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of sanctions, and used the occasion to criticize an American proposal to deploy a missile shield in South Korea.

“Sanctions are not an end to themselves, and the Security Council cannot fundamentally resolve the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula,” Mr. Liu said. “Today’s resolution should be a new starting point and a paving stone for the political settlement of the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula.”

Analysts noted that previous sanctions were hampered because of a lack of vigorous enforcement by member states and the North’s ingenious ways of circumventing them. The Council does not punish countries that aid North Korea’s illicit trade or that fail to put sanctions in effect.

When it met last month, a United Nations panel of experts overseeing the start of sanctions against Mr. Kim’s government concluded that widespread violations had continued and that many countries, including several Council members, had fallen short in carrying out the measures. The same concern overshadows the latest resolution.

China’s agreement to limit imports of North Korean coal and iron ore came with a condition: that it should be demonstrated that such imports would support the North’s illicit weapons programs. By determining whether a shipment of coal from North Korea was for “livelihood purposes,” China can maintain leverage it hopes to use to bring the North back to talks, but not to push it to the point of disintegration, South Korean analysts said.

It is also up to China to control a booming network of trade and smuggling across its 870-mile border with North Korea. The cross-border transactions have become a lifeline for the impoverished North Korean people, but most of them are also run directly by — or involve kickbacks to — communist party and military officials, according to the analysts.

North Korea has also often relied on companies or fronts based in China to export missile parts and other illicit goods and to import sensitive technology.

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