DPRK (North Korea)
Expected Council Action
In August, the acting chair of the 1718 Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Sanctions Committee, Ambassador Trine Heimerback (Norway), is expected to brief Council members in consultations on the 90-day report regarding the committee’s work. The brief is likely to focus on recent developments in the DPRK and the implementation of the sanctions regime.
Key Recent Developments
Shortly after US President Joe Biden took office in January, his administration announced that it would conduct a full review of US policy towards the DPRK. In April, the administration indicated its new strategy would involve pursuing a middle ground between former President Donald Trump’s direct outreach to DPRK leader Kim Jong-un—which sought to agree a comprehensive deal encompassing the end of the Korean war, denuclearisation and a new relationship between Pyongyang and Washington—and the “strategic patience” approach adopted by former President Barack Obama, which tried to compel the DPRK to negotiate regarding its nuclear program by imposing sanctions and other forms of pressure.
On 30 April, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the US was seeking complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and indicated that the administration’s policy “calls for a calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with the DPRK, and to make practical progress that increases the security of the [US], our allies, and deployed forces”.
The contours of the Biden administration’s policy toward the DPRK became clearer following a 21 May meeting between President Biden and Republic of Korea (ROK) President Moon Jae-in. In a joint statement following the meeting, the two leaders emphasised their shared commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and called for the full implementation of relevant Security Council resolutions. They also reaffirmed the importance of diplomacy and dialogue and noted that talks regarding denuclearisation and the establishment of permanent peace should be based on previous commitments, including the Panmunjom Declaration and the Singapore Joint Statement. The Panmunjom Declaration was adopted by the DPRK and the ROK during the 2018 inter-Korean summit. It states that both countries share the common goal of realising a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and notes that they have agreed to actively seek the support and cooperation of the international community to realise this goal. The Singapore Joint Statement was signed during a bilateral summit between the US and the DPRK, which also took place in 2018. It calls for a new relationship between the DPRK and the US, lasting peace in Korea, complete denuclearisation, and recovery of the remains of prisoners of war and soldiers who are missing in action.
During a press conference following the 21 May meeting, Biden announced that Sung Kim, a former US ambassador to the ROK and the Philippines and the current US ambassador to Indonesia, would be appointed as US Special Representative for the DPRK. Biden also said he will not meet with Kim Jong-un until Kim makes a commitment to eliminate the DPRK’s nuclear weapons.
In a 17 June meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea (Workers’ Party), Kim ordered the DPRK government to prepare for both dialogue and confrontation with the US. Following a subsequent trilateral meeting of the US, Japan and the ROK that was held on 21 June, Sung Kim indicated that he would be willing to meet with the DPRK “anywhere, anytime, without preconditions”. During this meeting, he urged Council members to continue implementing all Council resolutions addressing the DPRK and noted that the US will do the same. In an apparent rebuke to Sung Kim, Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, issued a statement on 22 June in which she appeared to suggest that the US will be “disappoint[ed]” if it expects talks regarding the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program to resume. The following day, the DPRK’s Minister of Foreign Affairs formally rejected Sung Kim’s offer.
A widespread food crisis appears to be looming in the DPRK. On 16 June, state news media reported that Kim Jong-un advised the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party that “the people’s food situation is now getting tense as the agricultural sector failed to fulfil its grain production….[I]t is essential for the whole party and state to concentrate on farming”. In a 14 June report, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization forecast that the DPRK will experience an “uncovered food gap…equivalent to approximately 2.3 months of food use” this year. The report also noted that “households could experience [a] harsh lean period between August and October 2021” if this gap is not covered by commercial imports or aid. Analysts have speculated that the food shortage may prompt the DPRK to begin nuclear talks with the US in order to secure food aid.
DPRK state media have also reported that Kim recently advised the Workers’ Party Politburo that there have been lapses in the DPRK’s COVID-19 response that have caused a “great crisis” and may result in “grave consequences”. These reports did not clarify whether this means the DPRK is experiencing an outbreak of COVID-19. In response, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry offered to provide help “if any is needed”. Although the DPRK maintains that there are no cases of COVID-19 in the country, its economy has been hit hard by the pandemic. In August 2020, Kim publicly acknowledged that his five-year economic plan had failed and instructed officials to undertake an “arduous march” to overcome economic difficulties.
On 11 July, which was the 60th anniversary of the mutual defence treaty between China and the DPRK, Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping exchanged messages reaffirming their commitment to bilateral cooperation between the two countries. According to media reports, at least one DPRK-flagged bulk carrier linked to coal exports and three DPRK-flagged cargo ships are believed to have made voyages to the Chinese port Longkou during July. In its most recent report, published on 4 March, the Panel of Experts found that a DPRK vessel offloaded coal and collected humanitarian aid at this port in 2020.
Key Issues and Options
The DPRK’s non-compliance with Council resolutions remains an ongoing issue. In its 4 March report, the Panel of Experts noted that the DPRK has continued to violate a range of sanctions imposed by the Council, including by developing its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and importing refined petroleum products via illicit ship-to-ship transfers and direct deliveries. The DPRK’s refusal to engage with the US’ recent diplomatic outreach is also an issue, as is the overall effectiveness of the sanctions regime. Although the regime has been in place for a number of years, the DPRK is widely believed to have increased the number of nuclear weapons it holds during that time.
The Council could consider convening an informal interactive dialogue with key regional stakeholders to discuss new ways of addressing the security threat posed by the DPRK. The Council could also consider adopting a formal outcome calling for member states to adhere to the existing sanctions regime and the resumption of diplomatic talks.
The impact of sanctions on the humanitarian situation in the DPRK is a particular concern for some Council members. If the looming food crisis worsens and the “great crisis” that Kim referred to turns out to be an outbreak of COVID-19, there could be increasing pressure for the Council to consider options for temporary and targeted sanctions relief that might mitigate the humanitarian impact of these developments.
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 a policy of maximum pressure until the DPRK takes concrete steps towards denuclearisation. EU members of the Council are generally supportive of this approach. China and Russia, on the other hand, have shown interest in implementing 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 are 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 sanctions committee members for accelerating the process of considering humanitarian exemptions.
The revised US policy towards the DPRK may have an impact on Council dynamics, particularly if the DPRK decides to re-engage in diplomatic talks with the US. Although the DPRK has so far refused to do so, this could change if food shortages in the country worsen.
The US is the penholder on the DPRK, and Ambassador Mona Juul (Norway) chairs the 1718 DPRK Sanctions Committee.
UN DOCUMENTS ON THE DPRK
|Security Council Resolutions|
|26 March 2021S/RES/2569||This resolution extended the mandate of the Panel of Experts of the 1718 DPRK Sanctions Committee until 30 April 2022.|
|22 December 2017S/RES/2397||This was a resolution, adopted unanimously, tightening sanctions on the DPRK.|
|Security Council Letters|
|4 March 2021S/2021/211||This was the final report of the Panel of Experts.|