February 2021 Monthly Forecast

Posted 29 January 2021
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ASIA

DPRK (North Korea)

Expected Council Action 

In February, the chair of the 1718 Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Sanctions Committee, Ambassador Mona Juul (Norway), is due to provide her first briefing in this capacity.  The committee is expected to discuss the final report of the Panel of Experts in February, but the report is not expected to be formally presented to the Council until March. Because of the temporary measures adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic, the briefing is expected to be held as a closed videoconference (VTC). 

Key Recent Developments 

Leading up to the US presidential election on 3 November 2020 and in its aftermath, the DPRK remained relatively restrained and did not conduct any ballistic missile or nuclear tests. However, on 15 January, DPRK leader Kim Jong-un showcased the country’s latest weapons systems, including a new submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) during a night-time military parade in Pyongyang. During a similar military parade in October 2020, the DPRK displayed what it claimed was its largest ICBM to date. 

The 15 January parade marked the conclusion of the eight-day congress of the DPRK’s ruling Workers’ Party, which started on 6 January. During the congress, Kim was promoted to the position of General Secretary, the highest rank in the Workers’ Party. Addressing party delegates, Kim emphasised that the US remains the DPRK’s main enemy regardless of who is leading its government. Kim outlined a set of plans to further develop the DPRK’s nuclear and conventional weapons systems. While not ruling out diplomacy, Kim said that the DPRK’s bolstered nuclear capabilities are intended to give the country better leverage in dealing with the US.   

Speaking on the economic situation in the country, Kim admitted that the party had made serious mistakes in handling the economy. He said that the five-year plan for economic development had failed to reach targets in nearly every sector. Also, he added, the DPRK has faced serious economic challenges stemming from developments outside its control. (These include international sanctions, devastating natural disasters in 2020 and strict restrictions on movement in and out of the country to stop the spread of COVID-19.)      

The diplomatic effort to denuclearise the Korean peninsula has remained at an impasse since the collapse of the February 2019 US-DPRK summit in Hanoi. The new US president, Joe Biden, has been a vocal critic of former President Donald Trump’s approach towards the DPRK, especially his summitlevel meetings with Kim. Biden has emphasised that he would be willing to meet Kim only upon the condition that the DPRK take concrete steps towards denuclearisation. During a 17 January press conference, the president of the Republic of Korea, Moon Jae-in, encouraged the incoming Biden administration to build upon successes and draw lessons from the failures of Trump’s diplomacy with Kim. Moon played an instrumental role in facilitating negotiations between the US and the DPRK during the Trump presidency.   

On 11 December 2020, Council members met virtually under “any other business” on the human rights situation in the DPRK. Belgium, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, the UK, and the US requested an open videoconference (VTC) meeting and a briefing by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. China and Russia objected to holding the meeting, however. Given that the Council’s VTCs are not considered official meetings, procedural votes cannot be held unless members are willing to meet in person. From 2014 to 2017, the Council held an annual meeting on the human rights situation in the DPRK in December, but in 2018 and 2019, the proponents of this meeting could not convince nine members to support the meeting. (While every resolution requires nine votes, the veto does not apply to Council decisions of a procedural nature.)     

On 17 November 2020, the Council met under “any other business” to discuss issues related to the implementation of paragraph 5 of resolution 2397. The chair of the 1718 DPRK Sanctions Committee at that time, Ambassador Christoph Heusgen (Germany), initiated the meeting to address the issue of the conversion rate between tons and barrels related to importing refined petroleum products to the DPRK; under UN sanctions the DPRK’s import of petroleum products is capped at 500,000 barrels annually. A persistent issue at the committee level has been the inability of its members to agree on a ton/barrel conversion rate, which would help the committee determine with more precision the permitted amount of imported petroleum products. After the meeting, Heusgen held a media stakeout during which he noted that China and Russia have politicised the process of finding a solution to this issue and have continuously stalled attempts to resolve it. He emphasised that the inability to resolve this issue undermines the credibility of the Council and the committee.  

Key Issues and Options  

The security situation on the Korean peninsula, which remains volatile despite the absence of ballistic missile or nuclear tests over the past several months, is an ongoing issue for the Council. As evident from the January military parade, the DPRK has continued to develop new weapons systems, including ICBMs, in violation of Security Council resolutions. Initial diplomatic efforts and a period of US-DPRK rapprochement in 2018-19 resulted in the easing of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. In 2020, the DPRK appeared to have abandoned the diplomatic track and engaged in heightened rhetoric towards the Republic of Korea and the US. There is also some uncertainty over how the DPRK will react to the change in the US administration given that Biden criticised the US engagement with Kim during Trump’s presidency.  

An option for the Council would be to convene an informal interactive dialogue with key regional stakeholders to discuss next steps in confronting the security threat posed by the DPRK. The Council could also consider adopting a formal outcome addressing the need for stability on the Korean peninsula and calling for the resumption of diplomatic talks.     

In light of persistent violations of the sanctions regime by the DPRK, the effectiveness of the regime remains an issue for the Council. These violations have been well documented in the Panel of Experts reports, most recently in the final report of September 2020. In response, the Council could consider ways of more strictly enforcing the sanctions and issue a statement calling on member states to adhere to existing sanctions measures.     

An ongoing issue in the sanctions committee has been the inability of members to reach agreement on the appropriate ton/barrel conversion. Given that the Council imposed limits on imports of refined petroleum products to the DPRK, reaching an agreement on this issue would contribute to better implementation of sanctions. Lacking agreement in the committee, an option would be for the new chair of the committee (Norway) to continue discussions on this issue and, with other members, possibly elevate the discussion to the Council level if it continues to falter in the committee 

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 towards 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. In December 2019, they circulated a draft resolution providing partial sanctions relief for the DPRK, but the proposal was not put to a vote and remains stalled because of insufficient support from other Council members. 

Council members have been generally united in their concern about the potential consequences for the DPRK of a widespread outbreak of COVID-19. On this front, there has been broad support among 1718 Committee members for accelerating the process for considering humanitarian exceptions. 

It seems unlikely that there will be a significant shift in Council dynamics because of changes in Council composition as of 1 January and the new US administration. During the past several years of the Trump administration, the US was reluctant to draw too much attention to the DPRK’s ballistic missile testing, possibly fearing negative consequences for its diplomatic efforts. Instead, the US focused mostly on sanctions pressure and diplomatic efforts. During this time, the Council’s European members have taken the lead in orchestrating the Council response to the DPRK’s ballistic missile activities. The Biden administration has signalled that it would increase pressure on the DPRK to force it to come to the negotiating table and abandon nuclear weapons. 

The US is the penholder on the DPRK, and as of 1 January, Ambassador Mona Juul (Norway) 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 Letters
31 March 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 Document
28 August 2020S/2020/840 This was the midterm report of the Panel of Experts.