May 2020 Monthly Forecast

Posted 30 April 2020
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ASIA

DPRK (North Korea)

Expected Council Action  

In May, the chair of the 1718 Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Sanctions Committee, Ambassador Christoph Heusgen (Germany), is expected to brief Council members in a closed video teleconference (VTC) on the 90-day report of the committee’s work. Because of the temporary measures adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic, the briefing is expected to be held as a closed VTC. 

Key Recent Developments 

On 30 March, the Council unanimously adopted resolution 2515, which extended the mandate of the Panel of Experts assisting the work of the 1718 Sanctions Committee until 30 April 2021. Because of the partial closure of UN headquarters starting on 16 March, Council members were unable to meet in person to vote on the draft resolution or reach an agreement on VTC modalities for voting. After negotiations, the Council agreed to adopt decisions through a written procedure. Resolution 2515 was the first resolution adopted using the written adoption process. The resolution sets the deadlines for the panel to submit its midterm and final reports as of September 2020 and March 2021 respectively.    

DPRK leader Kim Jong-un started the year with an announcement that the DPRK will no longer be constrained by its self-imposed moratorium on testing intercontinental ballistic missiles, saying that he would unveil a new “strategic weapon”. The DPRK’s escalatory rhetoric has placed an additional strain on already stalled diplomatic efforts to denuclearise the Korean peninsula. Despite the rhetoric, the DPRK did not test any weapons in January and February. On 1 March, the DPRK conducted its first ballistic missile test this year, which was followed by a series of other ballistic missile tests on 8, 20 and 28 March. It also fired several short-range missiles on 14 April.  

Council members met under “any other business” on 5 March to raise concerns about the DPRK’s initial ballistic missile test. Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, and the UK made a joint statement at the media stakeout following the meeting. They condemned the missile test and emphasised that these activities constitute a violation of Security Council resolutions. Council members met again under “any other business” on 31 March to discuss the DPRK’s subsequent ballistic missile launches. Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, the UK, and non-Council member Poland issued a statement following the meeting, condemning the DPRK’s continued efforts to develop its ballistic missile programs and operate its nuclear weapons programme. 

After earlier discussions in the sanctions committee, the final report of the Panel of Experts was to be made public by 6 March. The report was published in mid-April, the delay apparently being due to its translation into all six official UN languages. According to the report, the DPRK has continued unabated violation of the sanctions regime, most notably through illicit ship-to-ship transfers of oil and coal, the proliferation of weapons, and cyber-attacks. These findings appear similar to the conclusions of the panel’s midterm report published in September 2019. The panel has drawn attention to the increased sophistication of the DPRK’s use of cyber-attacks. In its midterm report published in August 2019, the panel estimated that DPRK cyber actors have generated around $2 billion of revenue through illegal activities. 

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in China, the DPRK has taken strict measures to stop the spread of the virus. It has closed borders with neighbouring countries, banned international tourism, and imposed mandatory quarantines on those suspected of having been in contact with anyone who could be infected with the disease. To date, the DPRK has reported no cases of COVID-19, a claim that is disputed by many international experts. China and South Korea, both of which border the DPRK, are among the first countries to have been heavily affected by the pandemic. 

On 24 March, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet issued a statement calling for sanctions to be reassessed, especially in countries affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. She mentioned the DPRK as one of the countries where sanctions might significantly impair medical efforts to address the pandemic.  

Human Rights-Related Developments 

During its 43rd session, the Human Rights Council (HRC) held an interactive dialogue on 9 March with the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, Tomás Ojea Quintana, and considered his report (A/HRC/43/58), which found no sign of improvement in the human rights situation nor progress in advancing accountability and justice for human rights violations. In his statement, Ojea Quintana highlighted the plight of women, the lack of access to water, and the dire situation in prisons. He also said that the COVID-19 pandemic had brought into focus the impact of sanctions on the people of the DPRK and called on the HRC to look at this issue. 

Key Issues and Options  

Tensions on the Korean peninsula have been on the rise during the past several months as evidenced by the DPRK’s escalatory rhetoric and its resumption of ballistic missile testing. Also, there has been no significant progress on the diplomatic front in US-DPRK talks or the inter-Korean dialogue. Given the volatile security environment, the Council is primarily concerned with maintaining stability on the Korean peninsula. An option for the Council would be to consider issuing a formal outcome addressing the need for stability and the resumption of diplomatic talks.  

As is clear from the final report of the Panel of Experts, the effectiveness of the sanctions regime in light of continued violations by the DPRK remains an ongoing issue for the Council. In addressing this, the Council could consider other ways to ensure stricter enforcement or consider issuing a statement calling on members to adhere to existing sanctions measures.  

A related issue for the Council, and some members in particular, is the impact of sanctions on the humanitarian situation in the country. The global COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these concerns. While the DPRK has said that it has no confirmed cases, the potential impact of this pandemic on the DPRK could be severe. Should the COVID-19 pandemic affect the DPRK, the Council could consider options for temporary and targeted sanctions relief to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.     

Council Dynamics  

Members continue to be divided over the role of sanctions in addressing the nuclear threat posed by the DPRK. The US has been a strong proponent of maintaining the policy of maximum pressure until the DPRK takes concrete steps toward denuclearisation. The EU members of the Council are generally supportive of this approach. On the other hand, China and Russia have shown interest in considering some form of sanctions relief and even circulated a draft resolution on partial sanctions relief for the DPRK in December 2019. The proposal remains stalled because of insufficient support from other Council members.  

With respect to a potential spread of COVID-19 in the DPRK Council members appear to be united in their assessment that it could have severe consequences for the country. There has been a broad consensus among 1718 Committee members about the need to accelerate the process for considering humanitarian exemptions.        

The US has been reluctant to address the DPRK’s ballistic missile tests in the Council, in light of its diplomatic efforts. Several other Council members, particularly European members, have pushed for discussions following the recent tests. It remains to be seen whether the US position will change if it becomes clear that the diplomatic track appears closed and the DPRK conducts further tests. 

The US is the penholder on the DPRK, and Germany chairs the 1718 DPRK Sanctions Committee. 

UN DOCUMENTS ON DPRK  

Security Council Resolutions
30 March 2020S/RES/2515 This resolution extended the mandate of the Panel of Experts assisting the work of the 1718 Sanctions Committee until 30 April 2021.
22 December 2017S/RES/2397 This was a resolution, adopted unanimously, tightening sanctions on the DPRK.
Security Council Meeting Record
11 December 2019S/PV.8682 The Council was briefed by Mohamed Khaled Khiari, Assistant Secretary-General for the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific on non-proliferation related issues in DPRK.
Security Council Letters
6 April 2020S/2020/266 This letter from the president of the Security Council contained both the draft resolution and letters received in reply from Council members indicating their national positions on the draft resolution.
30 March 2020S/2020/246 This was a letter by the president of the Security Council containing the results of the vote on resolution 2515.
Sanctions Committee Documents
2 March 2020S/2020/151 This was a final report of the Panel of Experts.
20 December 2019S/2019/971 This was the annual report of the 1718 Sanctions Committee.