The U.N. Security Council finally delivered on the sanctions against North Korea that have been in the works for the past month. On Aug. 5, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to approve the tougher measures, which the United States proposed in early July after North Korea's first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test and accelerated following the second. This marks a symbolic victory for the U.S. administration, which has been pushing China to apply pressure on North Korea and which last week signaled it was preparing to unleash severe trade measures against China. Nevertheless, these fresh U.N. sanctions will not discourage North Korea from its continued goal of attaining a deliverable nuclear device.
As with all U.N. sanctions, enforcement is the key issue. Within three months, member countries will submit a report on implementation measures to the U.N. Security Council. Neither Russia nor China wants to see the North Korean government collapse, and both have numerous hidden avenues to ensure it doesn't. In the past, Russia and China have passed sanctions only to undercut them in practice. The three-month reporting deadline gives them a great deal of leeway — as does the fact that member countries will be self-reporting on implementation.
The new U.N. ban on coal exports targets a major source of North Korean revenue, but China already implemented a coal suspension in February — after it had already reached its annual cap on coal imports for 2017. Official Chinese figures peg coal imports from North Korea for the first half of 2017 at around $722 million — not far off the amount for all of 2015 ($951 million). The U.N. measures also do not address North Korean textile exports to China, which account for a reported $419.1 million annually. In fact, Sino-North Korean trade reportedly increased more than 10.5 percent in the first half of 2017, demonstrating that China has ways of balancing out any cuts — even without black market trade. Russia has already started to act as a pressure valve as well, shoring up North Korean revenues and energy sources.
Neither China nor Russia exercised its power to veto the most recent U.N. measures. Russia seemed more willing to pass the sanctions after a phone conversation between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Aug. 3. Both China and Russia, however, called for the United States to dial back its military presence in the region. North Korea, predictably, condemned the sanctions.