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In September 2016, North Korea conducted its fifth and the largest nuclear test. In December 2016, the UN Security Council unanimously agreed to impose a new round of sanctions on North Korea in response to the September test. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon describes the sanctions as the toughest sanctions ever imposed by the UNSC on North Korea.
The new round of sanctions aims to slow North Korea’s nuclear developments by controlling North Korea’s hard currency revenues. As reported by the New York Times, the new sanctions impose a cap on North Korea’s coal export, which is the main source of North Korea’s hard currency. According to the new resolution, North Korea can sell coal valued no more than $400 million or no more than 7.5 million metric tonnes every year. In addition, the sanctions also expand the list of banned items for import by North Korea. The number of North Korea’s diplomatic missions’ overseas bank accounts are also limited to one in each country.
Other than North Korea, 11 government officials and ten entities associated with the North’s nuclear weapons program are also sanctioned by the new resolution.
Concerned about the possibility of North Korea to disrupt regional security and strategic arrangement, China supported the UNSC sanctions on North Korea. However, China’s deepest concern still lies in the possibilities of the fall of the Kim regime and the flows of refugees into China. Indeed, although the sanctions are described as the toughest sanctions on North Korea, the sanctions could not fundamentally resolve the North’s nuclear issues, but can only slow down its development. As a result, China agreed to impose the sanctions on North Korea because the sanctions will not negatively affect North Korean citizens’ ‘livelihood.’
A North Korean diplomat at UN headquarters responded to the sanctions negatively by stating that ‘We do not recognize this discriminatory, double-standard, unilateral and unfair resolution.’
The Korean Peninsula has long been one of the most dangerous flashpoints in the Asia-Pacific region because the Korean Peninsula remains, technically, at war. The treaty signed to end the Korean War was an armistice rather than a peace treaty. Since the 2000s, North Korea’s nuclear program further casts doubts of whether the Korean Peninsula can remain as the status quo. The periodical aggressiveness and the patriotic education of the North have successfully deterred the possibility and willingness of either Korea to peacefully unite the two Koreas.
The international community has responded to North Korea’s nuclear program with multiple sanctions. However, the North continues its nuclear program and its nuclear arsenal is developing towards a fully functional arsenal. Therefore, whether imposing sanctions is an effective strategy to resolve North Korea’s nuclear issue is questionable.
The US and China are the two most important actors in resolving North Korea’s nuclear issue as China still regards North Korea as a buffer zone between itself and the US regional forces. Therefore, the key to fundamentally resolving North Korea’s nuclear issue is whether the US and China can slow or stop their strategic competition in the region. If China and the US can truly cooperate towards resolving the North Korea nuclear issue, the international community may successfully limit or finally resolve the prolonged North Korea nuclear program.