Plugging a New Gap in Monitoring Sanctions on North Korea
Plugging a New Gap in Monitoring Sanctions on North Korea
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur region on September 13, 2023. Photo distributed by Sputnik agency, Vladimir SMIRNOV / POOL / AFP
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur region on September 13, 2023. Photo distributed by Sputnik agency Vladimir SMIRNOV / POOL / AFP
Q&A / Asia 13 minutes

Plugging a New Gap in Monitoring Sanctions on North Korea

Russia used its Security Council veto to terminate a UN panel monitoring sanctions on North Korea, complicating efforts to contain Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Christopher Green, Richard Gowan and Maya Ungar delve into the consequences.

What happened?

On 28 March, Russia vetoed the renewal of the mandate of the Panel of Experts monitoring UN sanctions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as North Korea prefers to be known. The eight-member Panel ceased work on 30 April after a farewell breakfast with Council diplomats. While the Council imposed sanctions on the DPRK in response to its first nuclear test in 2006, the Panel began investigating and reporting on the regime’s violations in 2009. To be sure, the Panel’s work was often a source of controversy among Council members in particular China and Russia – and the DPRK has continued to both circumvent the sanctions and advance its proliferation activities. The Panel did, however, provide reports on the state of the regime most states broadly accepted as impartial and reliable. Its closure leaves a gap in the international framework for addressing North Korea’s proliferation activities, following a period in which Pyongyang – in contravention of UN resolutions – has conducted missile tests and satellite launches at an unusually high tempo: more than 30 ballistic missile tests in 2023, and more than 100 since Kim Jong Un made a speech setting out North Korea’s military development goals at a DPRK ruling party congress in January 2021. 

Despite the closure of the Panel, the UN sanctions – which the Council last expanded in response to the DPRK’s most recent nuclear test in 2017 – remain in place. A Council committee, currently chaired by Switzerland, also retains the authority to gather evidence on their implementation. But without the support of the Panel, the Committee will need to rely on information from governmental and non-governmental sources that Russia, China and other members may reject as biased or misleading. Enforcement of the sanctions regime is becoming more contentious, possibly encouraging the DPRK to believe it has more leeway to provoke its neighbours without consequences.

The U.S. and other concerned UN members have been exploring possible ways to compensate for the Panel’s closure. Ideas include asking the UN General Assembly, where no state has a veto, to mandate a monitoring mechanism, or establishing an independent alternative outside the UN system that could pass information to the Council. Diplomats agree that no model is likely to enjoy the same level of credibility as the Council-mandated Panel, and that formation of any alternative mechanism (which Western governments seem to think is important to do) will face strong pushback from Moscow and Beijing as well as Pyongyang. 

What did the Panel do?

Over the past fifteen years, the Panel of Experts delivered twenty reports. It typically reported twice a year – with one midterm and one final report – covering issues ranging from the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs, and examples of sanctions evasion such as illicit financial operations and petroleum imports. The Panel, which did not shy away from detail (its last report totalled 615 pages), also provided recommendations for member states on how to address these issues. Although in many cases the Panel proposed ways to tighten the screws on North Korea as it sought ways around the international regime, it also flagged the need for sanctions relief on humanitarian grounds. Many member states have used the reports to improve upon their own customs and export control mechanisms. Additionally, the private sector used the Panel’s information to ensure due diligence against sanctions evasion.

As with similar panels covering other UN sanctions regimes, all members of the North Korea Panel were required to be independent experts. The composition of the Panel was unusual, however, in that it always included experts from each of the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Japan and South Korea – which coincidentally happen to be serving among the ten elected members of the Council in 2024. 

There have long been suspicions that not all Panel members were entirely autonomous of their governments. In recent years, discussions within the Panel grew increasingly contentious, with the Chinese and Russian experts in particular routinely querying evidence and analysis provided by their counterparts. In 2021, the Chinese expert took the highly unusual step of including a series of dissenting footnotes in a Panel report. In 2023, one of the Panel’s reports leaked before its transmission to the Council, which Chinese officials argued raised doubts about Panel members’ respect for confidentiality requirements.

Despite this internal wrangling, Council members broadly agreed prior to 2024 that the Panel’s work offered a useful baseline for discussions about North Korea. Despite significant tensions between Russia and the Western Council members after Moscow’s all-out aggression against Ukraine in February 2022 – in addition to the U.S.-China rivalry creating friction at the Security Council – both Russia and China voted to renew the DPRK Panel’s mandate in March 2022 and March 2023.

Why did Russia kill the Panel?

By late 2023, Security Council members were speculating that Russia would raise objections over the renewal of the Panel’s mandate in 2024, although they were unsure if it would go as far as using its veto. Moscow has become more assertive in protecting friendly states at the Council, vetoing a mandate on providing humanitarian aid to Syria in July 2023 and imposing sanctions on Mali in August. (The Panel of Experts covering Mali had reported on the activities of the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group in the African country, drawing Moscow’s ire.) Russia and China have become critical of UN sanctions regimes as part of a broader campaign against U.S. and Western use of economic punitive measures. 

Russia also had particular incentives to reduce scrutiny of sanctions on Pyongyang, given its decision to import military materiel including artillery shells and ballistic missiles from the DPRK to sustain its war against Ukraine, contravening the UN sanctions regime. Recent Panel reports referred to this weapons trade. While the most recent highlighted difficulties in gaining solid information about the scale of this trade and tried to be even-handed (for example it included one reference to Ukrainian forces allegedly utilising a North Korean missile system), the Panel did appear to be taking a growing interest in the Ukrainian front. Even after Russia’s veto, it undertook a final visit to Kyiv in April. The Panel’s growing focus on Russian-North Korean relations was likely to create further embarrassment for Moscow.

Nonetheless, when negotiations on the renewal of the Panel mandate began in March, Russia did not immediately signal its intent to veto. Instead, it initially proposed that the Panel’s mandate renewal should require the Council to renew the sanctions on a yearly basis, opening up the opportunity for the sanctions themselves to be terminated by a Russian veto. This proposal appeared designed to fail, as it was unacceptable to the U.S., but Council members hoped that it was a starting point for bargaining on more realistic concessions to keep the Panel alive. Council members continued to hope for a deal – or a “technical rollover” of the mandate involving no alterations – until the final run-in to the vote of 28 March, when Russia made its intent to veto plain, arguing that the sanctions regime had become “utterly detached from reality”. Many diplomats concluded that Moscow had been set on a veto all along. Russia raised the idea of renewing the regime again in April, suggesting that it might table a resolution on the topic, but it gained little support at the Council and backed off.

How did other Council members, including China, react?

The majority of Security Council members supported a renewal of the Panel’s mandate. Most acknowledged, however, that the U.S. and China – which have negotiated on North Korea sanctions in the past – were key to any compromise. Additionally, Japan and South Korea played a central role in 2024.

Washington, Tokyo and Seoul appear to have hoped to persuade China to bring Russia into line. Although Chinese officials had predicted the mandate renewal would be tricky, they appear to have been surprised by the Russian gambit to make the regime subject to renewal. The U.S., Japan and South Korea agreed to reduce the number of times a year the Panel’s reports would be made public, as a concession to Beijing, which has been irritated in the past by reports of Chinese state and private actors breaking sanctions. The Western powers hoped that this would induce China to pressure Russia not to veto or – if the Russians would not budge – at least boost support for the mandate renewal and isolate Moscow. Yet Chinese diplomats appear to have been somewhat fatalistic about the situation, arguing that they lacked the leverage to stop Russia casting a veto, and themselves abstaining on the resolution (all other members voted in favour).

In the aftermath of the veto, China sent a senior official to Pyongyang for consultations – a move that some observers read as a sign that Beijing was unhappy with the extent of Russian-North Korean cooperation across a range of issues. But in New York, Chinese officials have not taken any steps to engineer a reversal of Russia’s decision, and have actively opposed ideas for non-Council-based sanctions monitoring.

How does the Republic of Korea view the veto?

Russia’s veto unsurprisingly caused alarm in Seoul. While UN sanctions have failed to bring an end to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, South Korean officials assess that the measures have slowed Pyongyang’s proliferation activities, and bought time to build up their own defence. They have also seen the UN as a useful channel for diplomacy with China and Russia to tamp down crises after significant provocations by the DPRK. From the South Korean perspective, the weakening of UN sanctions enforcement and monitoring is likely to alleviate pressure on North Korea and encourage it both to accelerate nuclear and ballistic missile programs and risk more provocative actions on the peninsula. Further, Russia’s public display of support for North Korea and China’s acquiescence suggest that Moscow and Beijing are less likely to manage future inter-Korean crises through UN channels.

A less tangible, but nonetheless deeply felt, concern on the part of South Korean officials is the weakening of its position in a broader battle for international legitimacy with the DPRK, which dates back to the 1940s. From Seoul’s perspective, it and Pyongyang are in a long-term contest for global support, which the South has largely been winning thanks to its economic strength, soft power, and the North’s isolationism and flouting of international rules. Both have been full UN members since 1991, but the UN sanctions regime – which cordons the DPRK off as an international pariah – further strengthens Seoul’s hand. The fact that it could not prevent the Russian veto, especially while serving as an elected member of the Security Council alongside Japan, was considered a rare diplomatic defeat for South Korea in this long-running contest. It may also encourage hawks in Seoul who argue that the country can no longer rely on diplomacy, U.S. support and conventional arms for security, and should also acquire nuclear capabilities of its own.

Are there alternatives to the Panel of Experts?

As a Russian veto on the Panel’s mandate was always a distinct possibility, if not a certainty, diplomats inside and outside the Council were pondering alternatives before 28 March. The debate on ways to compensate for the Panel’s closure has evolved quite quickly since, although all participants admit that there is no foolproof alternative, making any rapid action unlikely.

It is highly unlikely that Russia will recognise any alternative monitoring mechanism as legitimate, and, given its acquiescence to Russia’s veto, the same is almost certainly true of China. The goal is therefore to establish what mechanism, if any, a significant number of UN members would recognise as reliable, and could still provide guidance on maintaining and fine-tuning sanctions.

The simplest option would be for the Security Council committee overseeing North Korea sanctions to limp on without a support mechanism.

The simplest option would be for the Security Council committee overseeing North Korea sanctions to limp on without a support mechanism. The committee, which comprises all fifteen members of the Council, has always been empowered to gather evidence from sources beyond the Panel. In theory, the chair of the committee could compensate for the dissolution of the Panel by taking on a greater investigative role in its own right, requesting member states, non-governmental Korea-watchers and elements of the UN system to submit information on sanctions breaches. This would put an additional burden on the chair (who is generally an elected Western European member of the Council) but would at least maintain a steady flow of reporting on sanctions violations. There is, however, a basic obstacle to this option, which is that UN sanctions committees work by consensus. Russia or China could therefore stop the chair from taking even simple steps such as inviting briefers or requesting information from states. A bold chair with significant political capital might find ways to assemble information regardless, but would likely face huge pushback from Moscow and Beijing, which would fight tooth and nail to discredit it. 

Looking beyond the North Korea-focused Committee, members could still raise issues related to Pyongyang’s circumvention of sanctions in formal and informal meetings of the Security Council itself, where the consensus rule does not apply. For example, it would be possible for any Council member to ask the heads of the International Atomic Energy Agency and UN Office of Drugs and Crime to brief the Council privately or publicly on the DPRK’s proliferation activities or links to transnational criminal networks. Although such briefings can be effective, there is a risk that Russia or China could try to shift focus by bringing briefers of their own – as Russia has done over Ukraine – perhaps with a focus on U.S. military activities in Asia.

A potential alternative is for the UN General Assembly to establish a monitoring mechanism similar to the disbanded Panel of Experts, and direct it to feed information to the Council. The 193-member Assembly has been active in responding to crises where the Security Council is blocked in recent years – such as over Ukraine and Gaza – and a group of largely Western states floated the idea of establishing an Assembly-based mechanism in early April. At present, there is no equivalent Assembly-mandated body focusing on sanctions elsewhere, but it has mandated investigative mechanisms to address human rights abuses and disappearances, for example in Syria. 

An initiative for an Assembly-based mechanism, however, would have to overcome the hurdle that both Japan and South Korea expressed doubts about the concept because it is not clear that a robust majority of the General Assembly would support such an innovation, which could deprive it of legitimacy. Many UN members view the situation in North East Asia as remote from their own concerns (diplomats note, for example, that African members rarely speak in General Assembly debates on North Korea) and might shy away from backing any initiatives that would risk a diplomatic confrontation with the Chinese and Russians. The mood in the General Assembly in the context of war between Israel and Hamas is febrile, and a U.S.-backed push for a mechanism focusing on North Korea could also become entangled in unrelated arguments over the Middle East. Other obstacles would also have to be resolved, including legal and procedural questions about how a mechanism deriving its authority from the General Assembly would report to the Security Council, and how it would be financed. 

These issues notwithstanding, one potential benefit of pursuing the General Assembly route could be to nudge China towards considering some of the Security Council-based options noted above. Chinese diplomats have warned that an Assembly-based model would challenge the prerogatives of the Security Council in peace and security. Beijing might prefer the Council to take a marginally more active approach to North Korea, which it can still control, rather than open the issue up to the wider UN Membership.

A further option – unencumbered by the complexities of UN procedures – is for a coalition of concerned states and/or non-governmental actors to set up a monitoring capability outside the UN but with the goal of keeping the Security Council informed of North Korea’s activities. There is already a significant variety of non-UN-based actors gathering information on sanctions evasion, ranging from think-tanks to a U.S.-led military coalition – including Australian, Canadian and European forces – that conduct air and maritime surveillance to monitor and deter sanctions evasion in North Korea. Given the amount of information available from these sources, it would be possible to establish an office – preferably based in a neutral country and with staff from non-U.S. allies – to collate reports of sanctions violations and transmit these to the Security Council. For procedural purposes, at least one UN member would need to volunteer to pass on the reports.

Russia, China and other states that face accusations of trading illicitly with North Korea would [likely] dismiss ... a non-UN-based mechanism as untrustworthy.

It is almost certain that Russia, China and other states that face accusations of trading illicitly with North Korea would dismiss such a non-UN-based mechanism as untrustworthy, even if it was set up with safeguards on its autonomy. Governments and private sector actors might also be less likely to use such reports as a point of reference for tightening their own sanctions implementation, given their less official standing. Given the political obstacles to conducting credible sanctions monitoring on the basis of either Security Council or General Assembly mandates, however, this may be the best available option for compiling information on the state of the sanctions regime. It would then still fall onto Security Council members to decide what, if any, remedial actions to take in response to sanctions violations – and it is hard to see Russia being more constructive on that score. 

North Korea itself has been dismissive of any efforts to compensate for the Panel of Experts. Its ambassador to the UN declared in early May that “hostile forces may set up the second or third expert panels in the future but they are all bound to meet self-destruction with the passage of time”. Even if there are ways for those states that wish to sustain sanctions on North Korea to step partly into the shoes of the Panel, there is little doubt that Moscow’s veto was a win for Pyongyang in the immediate term – and in all likelihood a blow to regional security.


UN Director
Senior Consultant, Korean Peninsula
Analyst, UN Advocacy and Research

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