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(News Focus) China's role becomes more important than ever to make sanctions work: experts

2016/12/01 11:33

By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, Dec. 1 (Yonhap) -- A new set of punitive sanctions adopted by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) against North Korea will likely tighten the noose around the regime bent on nuclear development. However, its success will depend more than ever on China and how faithfully it implements trade restrictions, experts here said Thursday.

On Wednesday (local time), the UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 2321 in New York after months of negotiations in the wake of the North's fifth nuclear test conducted on Sept. 9. Its focus is on significantly cutting the North's coal exports, which are deemed Pyongyang's main source of hard currency.

Observers said if those measures, including export bans and other restrictions in areas ranging from trade to diplomacy, are fully implemented, it could hurt the North's efforts to secure money needed to continue its nuclear development program.

"Once the latest sanctions are put into action, it is estimated that around a third of the North's export revenues will be cut," said Cho Bong-hyun, an analyst at the IBK Economic Research Institute. "It could have a crippling effect on Pyongyang's ability to obtain foreign currency."

   The resolution, in particular, calls for restricting the maximum amount of the North's total coal exports to 7.5 million tons or US$400 million annually. This represents a more than 60-percent drop from its 2015 overseas shipments.

Combined with export bans on copper, nickel, silver and zinc, the Seoul government estimated that the coal export restriction could reduce the North's foreign currency income by more than $800 million annually.

Coal exports were prohibited under the previous Resolution 2270 adopted in March following the North's fourth nuclear test in January but exceptions were allowed for livelihood purposes apparently at the request of China.

This was often cited as a major loophole through which the North is suspected of obtaining money needed for its missile and nuclear programs. Around 90 percent of the North's coal exports are bound for China.

Since the North's nuclear test in September, the U.S. and China held months-long negotiations on how to close the loophole as tightly as possible.

However, as the process to draw up a fresh resolution was delayed, speculation spread that China was dragging its feet and unwilling to push the North hard for fear that doing so could lead to instability in the country and hurt Chinese national interests.

Observers say that whether the latest sanctions would work depends on China more than ever, but expressed worries that things might not be as optimistic given the challenge in ensuring that Beijing faithfully enforces the export cap.

Though countries are required to report their monthly coal imports from North Korea to the UNSC, experts say that it would be hard to keep exact track of shipments that take place through "unofficial routes of trade."

   "In official trade routes, sanctions can be applied but there is a possibility that the North will create unofficial trade channels," said Lim Eul-chul, a professor at the Institute for Far East Studies at Kyungnam University. "The success relies on whether the bans are enforced even in such areas."

   Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, echoed the worry, citing the already existing shady trade routes between China and the North.

"Smuggled items bound for China cannot be accounted for. For that matter, you can't conduct a survey on all the coal shipments," he said.

An ongoing diplomatic row between China and the U.S. over Washington's plan to deploy THAAD in South Korea is also cited as a possible drag in drawing full cooperation from Beijing.

Signs of a bumpy road ahead were hinted at in an address that China's U.N. ambassador delivered right after the Security Council adopted the resolution.

"China is opposed to the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system on the Korean Peninsula as it seriously undermines the strategic security interest of China and other countries of the region, and upsets the regional strategic balance," Liu Jieyi said.

"As such, it is neither conducive to the realization of the goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, nor helpful to the maintenance of peace and stability on the peninsula," he said, urging Seoul and Washington to "immediately stop" the deployment process.

The Seoul government shared concerns that it would be difficult to monitor whether the restrictions are fully implemented, but said it believes that Beijing will fully cooperate with the international community's stance on this issue.

"You have to believe. China has expressed its will on several occasions to faithfully carry out UNSC resolutions and it seems to be doing so," a government official said on condition of anonymity.

"A 100 percent implementation might not be possible due to possible carelessness or negligence of lower organizations and agencies there but it has ownership in the resolution. I don't think Beijing will either carry out the sanctions perfunctorily or try to deceive," he added.