A man watches a television screen showing an image of Kim Jong Un, leader of North Korea. (Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg)

North Korean Arms Trade Among Loopholes UN Struggling to Close

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s administration calls North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism and is stepping up pressure on China to cut off all ties with its neighbor after Pyongyang’s test of another intercontinental ballistic missile this week.

But an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting Wednesday showed how hard it is to punish what is already one of the world’s most isolated regimes. No new sanctions were proposed, and the meeting started by highlighting one of the most intractable problems with existing sanctions: many nations simply ignore them.

North Korean Arms Trade Among Loopholes UN Struggling to Close

“There are countries that are continuing to fund the North Korean nuclear program by violating UN sanctions and obstructing our efforts,” U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said. “The world knows who many of them are.”

While China has the most extensive trade relationship with North Korea, including an oil pipeline into the country, UN investigators say nations from Angola to Kuwait have maintained ties that help Kim Jong Un’s regime earn much-needed hard currency. Even with the Security Council’s backing, U.S. envoys and UN officials find those dealings are stubborn barriers to getting all nations to sever ties with North Korea.

North Korean Arms Trade Among Loopholes UN Struggling to Close

“The Achilles’ heel of every sanctions regime is its implementation,” said George Lopez, a sanctions expert and professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame.

African nations have been particularly problematic, according to the UN.

UN officials have investigated at least seven African countries for violations of sanctions against North Korea. Pyongyang’s trade in small arms to several African nations continues despite being prohibited by the UN and accounts for about $100 million a year, according to Enrico Carisch, a former UN Security Council sanctions expert who tracked illicit North Korean trade.

“Some countries don’t see North Korea as a threat to their national security,” said Carisch, who founded the advisory firm Compliance & Capacity Skills International LLC. “It’s not in the national interest of African states to shut down the supply of cheap and good North Korean arms that they need for their own national security.”

‘Lots of Small Fish’

That attitude is frustrating the White House and State Department, which are trying to manage the preeminent foreign policy threat facing the Trump administration. Haley on Wednesday called on all nations to cut all ties with Pyongyang, recognition that even small amounts of hard currency from military training or guest workers abroad help sustain Kim’s regime.

“It’s good to go after the big fish, but even our best efforts can be undermined by lots of small fish,” said Notre Dame’s Lopez.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pressed the U.S. case before a group of foreign ministers from 37 African nations meeting in Washington on Nov. 17.

North Korean Arms Trade Among Loopholes UN Struggling to Close

“All nations must act to implement UN sanctions in full and cut off all UN-proscribed ties,” Tillerson said. “I urge you to take additional measures to pressure the DPRK by downgrading your diplomatic relationships with the regime, severing economic ties, expelling all DPRK laborers, and reducing North Korea’s presence in your country in all other ways it may be found,” he added, using an acronym for the country.

‘Lax Enforcement’

Some in his audience saw things differently. According to the UN, North Korean officials have conducted military training in Angola, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and attempted to ship military equipment to Eritrea and arms to Mozambique. In addition, North Korea repaired military equipment in Tanzania and built military related facilities in Namibia.

“The actual implementation of sanctions lags far behind what is necessary to achieve the core goal of denuclearization,” the UN’s panel of experts, which investigates compliance with the sanctions, said in a Sept. 5 report. “Lax enforcement of the sanctions regime coupled with the country’s evolving evasion techniques are undermining” the UN’s efforts, according to the report. Most offending countries hadn’t responded to UN inquiries, according to the report.

“There is no membership discipline at the UN, and the Security Council doesn’t have the tools to impose penalties on countries that break the sanctions,” said William Newcomb, a former member of the UN’s panel of experts on North Korea.

Security Council restrictions on North Korea have been gradually tightened since 2006, culminating in September with a total ban of textile exports and a partial ban on imports of refined petroleum products, as punishment for the country’s continuing missile and nuclear tests. 

Signs of Progress

The U.S. campaign has had some breakthroughs. Last month, Uganda said it had ejected North Korean military experts and representatives, including its top arms dealer, in order to comply with UN sanctions. Kuwait said it will stop issuing visas to North Korean guest workers and will demand that the country reduce staff at its embassy in Kuwait City. But those achievements have been sporadic.

North Korean Arms Trade Among Loopholes UN Struggling to Close

Shortcomings in the UN’s enforcement regime were highlighted years ago, when a shipment of arms from Cuba heading to North Korea -- including two MiG fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles -- was intercepted in the Panama Canal in 2013. Inspectors found 25 containers of arms concealed beneath 200,000 bags of sugar, but no action was taken against Cuba, Newcomb said.

“Cuba didn’t even get a slap on the wrist,” said Newcomb, now a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “You can only encourage countries to implement the sanctions.”

Veto Power

Another challenge for Trump is that Russia and China, which have veto power on the Security Council, can weaken sanctions resolutions and push back against findings of the experts’ panel.

On Nov. 21, a day after Trump announced his intention to re-designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, the U.S. sanctioned three Chinese companies that it said cumulatively export about $650 million in goods to North Korea and import about $100 million in goods such as computers, iron, zinc ore and other minerals.

Historically, the U.S. tends to impose its sanctions and then go to the UN to try to get the global body to weigh in as well. But the UN doesn’t always follow Washington’s lead. And for many countries, North Korean-provided goods -- especially weapons -- are a convenience they don’t want to do without.

“Clients turn to North Korea because they offer spare parts and training in weapon systems that have been discontinued by Russia and China,” said Andrea Berger, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California. “Finding spare parts to keep their arms in service is a more difficult affair than it used to be. North Korea has helped to fill a void.”

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