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(News Focus) New N.K. sanctions powerful, but impact on nuclear program questionable: U.S. experts

2016/03/03 04:57

By Chang Jae-soon

WASHINGTON, March 2 (Yonhap) -- The newly adopted U.N. sanctions on North Korea will no doubt bite the communist nation hard as long as they are rigorously enforced, but they're unlikely to derail Pyongyang's nuclear program and could even deepen its desperation for atomic bombs, American experts said.

Resolution 2270, unanimously adopted Wednesday, represents the harshest sanctions the U.N. Security Council has ever imposed on the North, as it requires, among other things, mandatory inspection of all cargo going in and out of the North regardless of whether by land, sea or air.

It also bans the North's export of coal, iron and other mineral resources, a key source of hard currency that accounts for nearly half of the country's total exports, prohibit all sales of small arms and other conventional weapons to the North, and bans jet and rocket fuel supplies to the country.

"They are dramatic expansions of the UNSC sanctions regime. This resolution will make it far more difficult for North Korea to engage in what little commerce it has left," Richard Nephew, a former State Department sanctions expert, said in comments to Yonhap News Agency.

The expert, currently an adjunct professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, said, however, that the ultimate question about the resolution is "not what's in the measures but what is in the enforcement."

   He said that the resolution has exceptions as with all other U.N. Security Council sanctions measures, such as excluding from the export ban mineral resources sales unrelated to the nuclear and missile programs, and such exceptions could be used to skirt sanctions.

"China will be a big player here, but also other countries around the world who have ties with North Korea or its military, which is effectively now isolated from any contact from the outside world," he said.

China is the main provider of food and fuel aid to the impoverished North, but has long been accused of blunting North Korea sanctions by providing assistance through backdoors as it fears that pushing Pyongyang too hard could lead to its collapse, instability on its border and the ultimate emergence of a pro-U.S. nation right at its door step.

The sanctions' economic implications will be serious, but that does not necessarily mean that those implications "will translate into new decisions on the nuclear program, the missile program, or other regional activities," Nephew said.

"North Korea approaches these issues with an entirely different set of assumptions, calculations and interests than other countries. So, its reaction to sanctions pain may very well be different than any other country's," he said.

Pyongyang has shown a staggering lack of care for its population and therefore it is doubtful that mere pressure on the economy would translate into a strategic reconsideration of its nuclear and missile programs, he said. Moreover, the North could even concluded more nuclear weapons are urgently needed to deter the threat of regime change, he added.

Alan Romberg, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, also expressed doubts about whether the sanctions will lead to a change in Pyongyang's calculus on its nuclear and missile programs as the regime could divert whatever resources are left to the weapons programs.

"If they are sincerely implemented, there is no doubt they will have an impact on North Korea's ability to earn foreign exchange," he said. "Whether that will harm their nuclear weapons program, however, is open to conjecture. Whatever losses they may sustain could be imposed on other sectors, with resources for weapons development maintained at current levels."

   The North also has other sources of earnings, such as workers dispatched abroad.

"So the degree to which constraints on certain exports might be imposed -- and that isn't clear at this point -- could be made up for in some degree, perhaps a significant degree, in other ways," he said.

Also unclear is how stringently China will enforce the sanctions, he said, suggesting that Beijing could back out of stringent enforcement if the United States and South Korea deploys the THAAD missile defense system that China has strongly opposed.

"My sense is that, while it will still take some time, THAAD deployments will likely go ahead. If that is the case, it then raises a question about how China will view the sanctions and the need to rigorously implement them," he said.

"Bottom line: the new sanctions doubtless will take a toll on North Korea. But there is considerable uncertainty about how big a toll and considerable doubt about whether they will slow down the nuclear weapons program," he added.

Ken Gause, a senior North Korea analyst at CNA Corp. in Washington, stressed that sanctions alone won't force the North's leader to give up the nuclear program as it's linked to the Kim family's legitimacy and is critical for his power consolidation.

"In order to slow, and even curb, North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, you need a strategy of engagement and confidence building," he said. "Sanctions alone will only enhance the regime's fear of the outside world and cause it to rally even more fiercely around its nuclear program."

   The North has entered into a period of brinksmanship after its diplomatic efforts last year failed to generate economic aid, and leader Kim is trying to stress national security, instead of economic progress, as a manifestation of his leadership in the lead-up to a rare Workers' Party Congress in May, he said.

"As for the lead up to the 7th Party Congress, there are likely to be provocations. Kim Jong-un needs to show his bona fides as a leader. He can't do it in the economy so he will have to do it on national security," Gause said.

jschang@yna.co.kr

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