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Robert Einhorn – the State Department’s special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control – was speaking in Seoul at the start of a visit to South Korea and Japan aimed at discussing and implementing harsher sanctions against North Korea. His visit comes two weeks after US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton announced the new sanctions, and a week after joint US-South Korea war games off the peninsula's east coast sent a strong message to the North.
Einhorn’s comments have raised questions about the efficacy of the sanctions, and highlighted China’s role in urging Pyongyang to suspend its nuclear program. Einhorn himself said in his comments that China's support was "critical," reports the Associated Press.
Our hope is that these measures will be effective, that they will provide strong incentives for North Korea's leaders to abide by their international obligations not to pursue any provocative activities and to fulfill completely their commitments to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
But, writing in the Oriental Economist, Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland point out that sanctions against North Korea will have limited impact since the bulk of Pyongyang's trade is conducted with nations sympathetic to its nuclear ambitions:
Finally, those countries most inclined to sanction North Korea no longer have much economic interaction with it anyway....
Thus an unintended consequence of the crisis has been to dramatically raise the share of North Korea's trade with China, and with Iran, Syria, and Egypt, countries with which it shares nuclear and/or missile interests. These latter partners show little interest in political quid-pro-quos, let alone sanctions. This geographical shift in trade makes traditional sanctions even less potent.
Moreover, the efficacy of these new sanctions has been undermined by China, which has recently bolstered economic ties with North Korea and committed to building new bridges across the joint border, reports The New York Times.
Forcing the North to abandon its nuclear ambitions, however, will depend in large part on whether China joins tough measures meant to cut off the flow of cash North Korea gets from alleged money laundering, counterfeiting of cigarettes and US currency, drug smuggling, and the sale of missile and nuclear technology.
Getting China to pressure a country it considers a buffer between itself and South Korean-based US troops will not be easy. China worries that chaos from a collapsed North Korea could spill across a shared border, along with a flood of refugees.
A task force report titled ‘US Policy Toward the Korean Peninsula’ published in June by the Council on Foreign Relations also points to the importance of Chinese support in the successful imposition of sanctions:
China remains wary of US-preferred tools for addressing the North Korean nuclear issue, eschewing pressure and sanctions in favor of economic incentives and attempts to entice North Korea to join in dialogue and cooperation. A US approach that emphasizes regional cohesion in dealing with North Korea requires Chinese cooperation, but there are limits to the range of options China is willing to consider.
The CFR report also critiques the Obama administration’s handling of sanctions and other counterproliferation measures, saying that even the appointment of a special 'sanctions coordinator' will "not be sufficient to completely stop the illicit spread of nuclear technology and know-how to new nuclear aspirants."