Peeling Back the Sanctions: How Russia's Veto Could Unravel the North Korea Pressure Campaign

Russian and North Korean senior military walk down red carpet in North Korea

The edifice of sanctions painstakingly erected to thwart North Korea's nuclear ambitions is at risk of crumbling. In late October, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to extend the mandate of a panel of experts that plays an integral role in monitoring and reporting on the enforcement of international restrictions levied against the hermit regime. The termination of the panel's activities at the end of April marks a major blow to the global sanctions architecture and could significantly impede efforts to restrain Pyongyang's illicit weapons development.

The Panel of Experts, established in 2009 after North Korea's second nuclear test, has served as a key pillar of the sanctions regime for over a decade. Comprised of specialists from eight countries including the US, China and Russia, this investigative body submits biannual reports detailing its findings on North Korea's evasion tactics and the implementation gaps that enable them. Its in-depth reporting, backed by granular analysis of sanctions breaches, has helped shine a spotlight on Pyongyang's subterfuge and guide efforts to close loopholes.

"It's like destroying a CCTV while a crime is in progress," lamented South Korea's ambassador to the UN.

The full import of losing this monitoring mechanism is difficult to overstate. Beyond providing critical intelligence, the panel's mandate represented an international consensus, however uneasy, that North Korea's pursuit of banned weapons programs warranted close scrutiny and a coordinated global response. Its dissolution sends a clear signal that this unity has fractured.

Russia's veto, which scuppered the panel's renewal despite support from 13 out of 15 Security Council members, marks an unambiguous shift in its stance on North Korea. Moscow, which once joined hands with Washington to curb Pyongyang's nuclear brinkmanship, has increasingly worked to undermine the sanctions it helped put in place. This reversal reflects a broader geopolitical polarization as US-Russia tensions sharpen over the war in Ukraine.

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Jamie Larson