After the sanctions

The fresh round of economic sanctions imposed unanimously by the UN Security Council on North Korea is a predictable response to mounting international frustration over the nuclear stand-off. The measures come days after the U.S., echoing suspicions in other countries, charged the North Korean government with the world-wide ‘WannaCry’ cyberattacks in May. The sanctions include an 89% curb on refined petroleum imports into North Korea, stringent inspections of ships transferring fuel to the country, and the expulsion of thousands of North Koreans in other countries (who send home crucial hard currency) within two years. Despite the crippling nature of the curbs, there is some good news on this imbroglio. As on previous occasions, Beijing and Moscow were able to impress upon the Security Council the potentially destabilising and hence counterproductive impact of extreme measures. This is significant given the intercontinental ballistic missile that Pyongyang launched in November. It was described by U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis as technically more sophisticated than anything witnessed previously, and the North Korean regime’s claim that it could deliver nuclear warheads anywhere in North America has been viewed with concern. However, even as China and Russia approved the latest measures, they continued to state their preference for diplomatic engagement. It remains to be seen how much more pressure Beijing can exert upon Pyongyang.

The stated aim of the sanctions regime has been to force North Korea to halt its nuclear programme and start disarmament negotiations. In September, North Korea detonated its sixth underground nuclear device, which it claimed was a hydrogen bomb. That assertion remains unverified, but experts believe the explosion was many times more powerful than previous detonations. The development has served as a reminder to the U.S. that the scope for military options may be increasingly narrowing. Against this backdrop, a revival of stalled peace negotiations between the P-5 nations and North Korea may be the only realistic alternative on the horizon. The successful conclusion of the 2015 civilian nuclear agreement between the P-5 plus Germany and Iran affords a constructive template to move ahead with North Korea. Certainly, U.S. President Donald Trump has delivered a scathing blow to the Iran deal, even as he stopped short of scrapping it. Iran’s continued compliance with the inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency may not mean much to Mr. Trump, given his overall distrust of multilateral institutions. But that is no reason why other big powers should not pursue the diplomatic effort with redoubled energy. Countries that backed the recently adopted UN nuclear weapons abolition pact should likewise lobby Pyongyang.