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Order from Chaos

Learning its lesson? What the Iran deal should teach China about sanctioning North Korea

Jonathan D. Pollack

More than a month after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test and days following Pyongyang’s second satellite launch, the U.N. Security Council has yet to reach agreement on a new resolution opposing the North’s nuclear and missile development. Despite assurances from China’s U.N. ambassador that all involved parties are “getting closer” to final agreement, there is no end in sight. The patience of the United States and its allies, meanwhile, is wearing thin.

Can an intransigent China learn from past experience?

China’s opposition to tougher sanctions remains the principal impediment to a Security Council resolution. Russia seems largely aligned with China, but Beijing (Pyongyang’s immediate neighbor and its primary economic partner) is the much more pivotal actor. Beijing acknowledges the need for additional measures to oppose Pyongyang’s actions, but whether China will consent to language and actions appreciably tougher than in prior resolutions remains very much in doubt. It also objects—as a principle—to states imposing unilateral sanctions, even as Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo begin to undertake such steps.

China is undoubtedly vexed and frustrated by North Korea’s nuclear and missile defiance. But its desultory, almost passive responses to recent developments (including President Xi Jinping’s silence for a full month after the nuclear test) suggests indecision or outright incapacitation in Beijing. China seems almost oblivious to the growing dangers on its doorstep, preferring to retreat into formulaic reiterations of existing policy. 

China seems almost oblivious to the growing dangers on its doorstep, preferring to retreat into formulaic reiterations of existing policy.

Beijing also insists that sanctions cannot be the defining purpose of a Security Council resolution. As stated by Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi, “our goal is to bring various parties back to the negotiating table…talks are the only correct path of resolving problems.” But if China is unprepared to cooperate in imposing meaningful costs on Pyongyang, North Korea has no incentives to alter its behavior. 

In addition, Foreign Minister Wang has misrepresented the underlying purpose of multilateral sanctions. He is neglecting the principal lesson from the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 over the former’s nuclear program (a process in which China was a full and very effective participant). The sanctions on Iran were far more comprehensive and punishing than those imposed thus far on North Korea. But they were a means to an end. They exacted sufficient costs on Tehran so that it was ultimately prepared to negotiate an agreement acceptable to all parties.

The North Korean case is starkly different. Pyongyang is the only country to test nuclear weapons in the 21st century and the only state ever to withdraw from the Nonproliferation Treaty. It has enshrined its self-proclaimed status as a nuclear-armed state in the North Korean constitution, and it gives every indication that it plans to indefinitely sustain its program.

Equally important, North Korea retains access to the international economy through its links to China. This has enabled Pyongyang to acquire the funds needed to sustain its nuclear, missile, and space programs and to propitiate the core elites that underpin the Kim family’s claims to absolute power. This financial access is not transforming North Korea into a robust or vibrant economy, but it helps Pyongyang to survive and enables its ruling elites to prosper. 

Going it alone

China thus holds the key to any appreciable change in North Korean behavior. Unless and until it is prepared to cooperate in exacting costs on Pyongyang, North Korea will see no reason to alter its strategy. As long as China rejects more onerous sanctions, the prospect for meaningful diplomatic progress also plummets to near zero. 

Unless and until [China] is prepared to cooperate in exacting costs on Pyongyang, North Korea will see no reason to alter its strategy.

Given China’s intransigence, the next Security Council resolution seems unlikely to be appreciably stronger than prior ones. Under such circumstances, the United States and other immediately affected states will increasingly protect their interests by unilateral measures. 

Seoul’s decision to suspend operations at the Kaesong Industrial Zone (and possibly to cease these activities outright) is the first indication of major policy change, and other measures by the United States and Japan seem likely to follow. This realization ought to be deeply sobering to leaders in Beijing, who as yet seem unprepared to grasp that business as usual with North Korea no longer applies.

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