Unlike Iran, North Korea has been impervious to international efforts to force it to forswear the use of nuclear weapons. But new sanctions approved by the United Nations Security Council last week offer at least the possibility of altering North Korea's behavior. Much will depend on whether China, North Korea's patron, enabler and largest trading partner, follows the letter and spirit of the resolution it supported.
The measure was prompted by North Korea's test in January of what it characterized as a hydrogen bomb, as well as repeated missile test launches. But North Korean defiance of the international community stretches back years. Neither previous sanctions nor diplomacy have induced the reclusive regime in Pyongyang to end its nuclear program.
The new resolution, approved after lengthy negotiations between Chinese and U.S. diplomats, significantly expands sanctions against North Korean individuals and entities involved with the insular country's nuclear weapons program. It also requires the inspection of cargo entering or leaving North Korea and bars the importation of aviation fuel. An arms embargo is expanded to include light weapons, and North Korea is instructed not to use ballistic missiles even to launch non-military satellites.
But even as it strengthens sanctions, the resolution leaves their enforcement to U.N. members. As a practical matter, that means North Korea will feel the pressure only if China takes its responsibilities seriously, rather than circumventing the sanctions on the pretext of avoiding “adverse humanitarian consequences.”
Beijing must recognize that anxiety about North Korea's intentions threatens a nuclear arms race not just on the Korean peninsula but in the entire region. It also should realize that if it doesn't put meaningful pressure on North Korea, the U.S. may go forward with a high-altitude missile defense system in South Korea that China sees as a threat to its own arsenal. However justified it might be, a strengthening of South Korea's defenses would make it even less likely that there would be another round of negotiations involving the two Koreas, the U.S. China, Russia and Japan. The last version of such talks collapsed in 2009.
China may not be able to dictate policy to North Korea's unpredictable leader Kim Jong Un. But it provides a lifeline to him and his inner circle and props up the country's infrastructure. If it's serious of about calming tensions on the Korean peninsula, it will use that considerable influence.