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What the new U.N. sanctions on North Korea mean

After the United Nations voted Aug. 5 to punish North Korea for missile tests, officials from the country lashed out. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

When it comes to dealing with North Korea's nuclear weapons program, many people hope sanctions are a useful tool. But not all sanctions are created equal.

This weekend, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to impose strict new sanctions on Pyongyang — a response to North Korea's launch of two intercontinental missiles last month. The new measures significantly step up restrictions on North Korea's international trade: Estimates say they may cost Pyongyang $1 billion a year, an enormous sum for a relatively poor country.

The hope is that these efforts may lead Kim Jong Un's regime to abandon its nuclear weapons program, or at least bring it to the negotiation table. But the effectiveness of sanctions is hard to predict — often it is difficult to quantify their effect even in hindsight — and North Korea's weapons program has appeared relatively impervious to previous sanctions.

Here's a WorldViews overview of the big questions about the new measures:

How are these sanctions different from other recent sanctions?

North Korea has long been under sanctions. The Security Council imposed wide-ranging sanctions after Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test, in 2006. The United States has imposed its own sanctions on Pyongyang, as have the European Union, South Korea and Japan.

In response to a missile launch last year, the Security Council passed Resolution 2270. The harshest sanctions yet, these sweeping measures took the punishment a step further by targeting North Korean economic activity not directly related to proliferation, including the export of mineral resources such as coal or iron. The new sanctions in Resolution 2371 largely expand upon those measures, broadening a cap on coal and iron exports to a full-fledged ban and adding restrictions on things such as seafood exports and the use of North Korean laborers abroad.

Notably, it appears to remove parts of the old sanctions that aimed to avoid “adverse humanitarian consequences” for civilians, Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, observed on the North Korean Economy Watch blog. “In sum, the new resolution appears much more holistic than its predecessors in fully cutting off North Korea’s most central export revenues,” Katzeff Silberstein wrote.

The effect of such sanctions could be big: The aim is to cut off a third of North Korea's estimated $3 billion in annual exports. However, the new sanctions will still rely on implementation from U.N. member states, which has proved to be problematic.

Why is it important that China and Russia were involved?

On Twitter, President Trump has pointed to Russian and Chinese support for the new sanctions.

Getting China and Russia on board for sanctions is certainly important. Both are major economic partners of North Korea, so if they apply pressure, it will be felt in North Korea. But it's perhaps not quite as simple a victory as Trump portrays it to be. China and Russia supported the Obama-era U.N. sanctions agreed upon last year, but critics contend that the two countries have not done enough to limit their economic relationship with North Korea.

Earlier this year, Russia expanded its use of North Korean migrant workers. Notably, while the new sanctions prohibit any increases in the number of these migrant workers, they do not call for those already abroad to be sent back. Troy Stangarone of the Korea Economic Institute of America suggests that these workers could end up sending more money home if their wages were to increase.

Meanwhile, it took months for China to make any effort to meet last year's U.N. cap on coal imports from North Korea, and there remain major questions about whether the trade figures it released publicly are truthful. Even if the figures on coal imports are accurate, they do not appear to have negatively affected the booming China-North Korea trade overall — despite frequent warnings from the Trump administration.

China's foreign minister said new U.N. Security Council sanctions on North Korea were the right response to a series of missile tests. (Video: Reuters)

Will these sanctions work?

There's little doubt that the new sanctions are a rare diplomatic success for Trump. That doesn't necessarily mean they will work as intended, however.

Many experts doubt that they will be effective if not fully enforced. “The $1 billion number depends on China implementing the UN sanctions,” Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former U.S. Treasury Department official, wrote on Sunday on Twitter, “we only have 11 years of evidence they will not do so.”

Both China and Russia share a border with North Korea and remain deeply worried about the prospect of economic chaos in that country. Russia's state media quoted the country's U.N. ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya, as saying Saturday that sanctions “shall not be used for economic strangling” of North Korea. Notably, the new sanctions do not cut off North Korean crude-oil imports, thought to be a major part of China and North Korea's economic relationship.

A bigger problem may be that even if the sanctions are implemented fully, they still may not produce the desired effect. In the past, North Korea has used sanctions as a domestic propaganda tool and an excuse for its own economic mismanagement. Resolution 2371 explicitly mentions this, with language expressing regret for Pyongyang's “massive diversion of its scarce resources toward its development of nuclear weapons and a number of expensive ballistic missile programs.”

Why North Korea's latest ballistic missile flew 7 times higher than the International Space Station (Video: The Washington Post)

Moreover, North Korea's leadership clearly views its nuclear weapons program as central to its long-term survival — and perhaps loftier and ideologically driven desires to unite the Korean Peninsula. The country has weathered economic disaster before and found inventive ways to flout trade restrictions.

Pyongyang's weapons program also has made some major leaps in the past year, and U.S. officials believe that it may be able to produce a reliable, nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile by 2018. At this late stage, persuading North Korea to halt or abandon this program will be difficult. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has acknowledged that there will be a lag time before the sanctions “actually have a practical bite on their revenues,” further limiting the pressure.

For its part, North Korea hasn't offered much contrition. “We will make the U.S. pay by a thousand-fold for all the heinous crimes it commits against the state and people of this country,” read a statement published Monday by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

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