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The UN Security Council is certain to impose sanctions on North Korea. But, since these are likely to involve – at least initially – just cutting off trade and diplomatic contacts, no significant impact is expected.
North Korea already exports very little and imports even less. Its sales of smokeless coal and fishing products – the two most significant commodities - are in any case down by 40 per cent this year and Nippon Steel, one of its biggest coal customers, has already cancelled a purchase contract over the weekend.
China can pull the plug on the country’s economy by halting shipments of oil and rice. Yet, quite apart from the fact that China is unlikely to take such an extreme measure, a food and oil embargo will hurt the people of North Korea, rather than their leaders. Jaap Timmer, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies' head of delegation in Pyongyang, has already expressed the hope that humanitarian trade “will be continued”, and his appeal is likely to accepted.
Travel and Technology Bans
The UN will impose a ban on the travel of North Korean diplomats. However, Pyongyang has few embassies, and its envoys rarely travel. A ban on the transfer of technology will be tightened. Yet it is difficult to see how this will go much further than the existing measures under UN Security Council Resolution 1695, adopted after North Korea test-fired its missiles in July.
Financial sanctions are unlikely to have much of an impact either. North Korea is already punished for its alleged practice of forging foreign currency banknotes, and Pyongyang has few assets on deposit with foreign banks. Most of the country’s economic activity is in barter form – exchanging goods at pre-arranged prices. It is largely undocumented and cannot, therefore be halted immediately.
Just about the only significant step likely to emerge from the Security Council is in the legal basis of the sanctions. The US, Britain, France and Japan want this to be under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. This will mean that all future actions will be under what international law calls “enforcement measures”, which can include anything from cutting off all economic links, and right up to the use of force. More importantly, such actions are obligatory on all members of the UN.
While the UN resolution does not, by itself, envisage a military strike, it could become a justification for such action at a future date. The US is likely to use it in order to stop and search North Korean ships on the high seas. This could be a prelude to a total naval embargo on the country and, ultimately, also become a justification for wider military action. For the moment, however, the international community remains largely impotent.
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