New sanctions on North Korea: Will China enforce them?

Even if China doesn't follow through on its vote for economic sanctions, the UN resolution approved Friday may let other countries tighten the screws.

Will North Korea's chief trade partner and economic lifeline reverse past habits and actually enforce the punishing measures it voted for?

Not likely, some North Asia experts say. China remains concerned first about its reclusive neighbor's stability. But the new resolution does provide important new screws that others, including the US, can use to tighten the constraints on North Korea and its nuclear activities.

"If I were the North Koreans, I would not be happy about this resolution because it allows a bit of broadening of the means by which those inclined to do so can go after the trade activities that constitute their bread and butter," says Marcus Noland, an expert in North Korea's economy at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

"It's not going to change their nuclear goals, but it is going to raise the cost of pursuing them," he adds.

On Friday, the 15-member Security Council approved a resolution of new sanctions that was backed by all five permanent council members, including China and Russia.

In the past, those two countries have discouraged sanctions on North Korea, but China's UN ambassador, Zhang Yesui, said after the vote that North Korea's second nuclear test last month had destabilized the region and could not go unanswered. He also noted that the resolution calls for a return to the Beijing-led six-party talks aimed at curtailing Pyongyang's nuclear program.

That, he said, demonstrates that the council wants to resolve the issues posed by the North's nuclear ambitions "through dialogue and negotiations."

The emphasis on dialogue may not be music to ears in Washington, which is hoping for tight international cooperation in imposing the new economic sanctions and measures, including inspection of suspicious North Korean cargo vessels, targeting a new list of North Korean companies, and an embargo on the North's lucrative arms sales.

Enumerating the list of new sanctions, Rosemary DiCarlo, the alternate US representative to the UN, said North Korea had brought the measures upon itself with its nuclear test and recent missile launches.

"These measures are innovative, they are robust, they are unprecedented," she said.

In Washington, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said the US was prepared to exercise the new powers the resolution extends to countries either to board North Korean ships suspected of carrying banned cargo or to direct the suspect ship to a nearby port for inspection. But she also cautioned that the measures may lead Pyongyang to respond with "further provocation."

Some North Korea watchers predict a defiant Pyongyang will conduct at least another missile launch in the coming days, but they play down the North's threats of a military attack in response to a resolution it considers a "hostile act."

Where the new economic sanctions are likely to "bite," in the words of Ambassador Rice, is their likely effect on North Korea's missile sales and service. North Korea "has made itself a one-stop shop for short-range missile sales and service," says the Peterson Institute's Mr. Noland, and the curtailment of the North's after-sales servicing, training, software, guidance-system sales, and weapons updating is what will hurt the reclusive regime.

Peterson says China will be important in determining the resolution's success – for example, if it continues to grant use of its air space to the North's cargo planes taking materials to Iran. But he says the resolution also opens new avenues for enforcement that are independent of China's involvement.

"It's worded in a pretty clever way," he says, "to allow the US and Europe or others who want to go ahead with these tougher measures the leeway to do so."

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