Argument

Bird in Hand

One of the strongest multilateral sanctions architectures ever created already exists to pressure North Korea; it just needs to be enforced.

As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Thailand for talks with her Asian counterparts, a central topic of discussion will be security on the Korean Peninsula. Two weeks ago, North Korea celebrated America's independence with a fireworks show of its own: seven ballistic missiles launched into the Sea of Japan.

This latest launch and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meetings add urgency to the international debate about how to compel more-responsible behavior from the Hermit Kingdom. This discussion misses a critical point, however. One of the strongest multilateral sanctions architectures ever created already exists to pressure North Korea; it just needs to be enforced. The United States was complicit in emasculating this sanctions regime. So, before jumping into lengthy negotiations over yet more sanctions, why not enforce the coercive measures already on the books?

In response to North Korea's first nuclear test in October 2006, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1718, which authorized three types of sanctions: an embargo on arms and luxury goods, a travel ban, and an asset freeze against individuals or entities contributing to North Korea's weapons program. The resolution banned all transfers in or out of North Korea of heavy weaponry and ballistic-missile technologies and inputs. The resolution did not specify the luxury goods banned, nor did it name the individuals and entities to be designated for the travel ban and asset freeze. Instead, it established a sanctions committee to undertake these tasks.

Shortly afterward, however, North Korea announced it would return to denuclearization negotiations. Within weeks of their adoption, the sanctions were tacitly shelved in deference to the six-party talks (the negotiations between North Korea, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States that were initiated when North Korea pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003). Six-party negotiators felt the sanctions resolution had helped compel North Korea back to the negotiating table and worried that trying to enforce the sanctions might jeopardize the fragile talks.

The sanctions became a bargaining piece and were quietly traded away in futile hopes of six-party progress. The following 2½ years saw on-again, but mostly off-again, U.S. interest in enforcing the sanctions, based on the status of the fledgling six-party process.

As a result, the sanctions committee created to track and enforce Resolution 1718 became largely dormant. It took the committee nine months to adopt its working guidelines after passage of Resolution 1718. It failed to define a list of luxury goods and decided in February 2007 that luxury goods meant whatever member states defined them to be. This allowed countries like China to skirt the terms of the resolution. By 2008, only a third of U.N. member countries had reported as required on measures taken to implement the embargo, and the sanctions committee didn't even meet during 2008 due to a lack of business.

The travel ban and asset freeze went similarly unrealized. Without a list of names or entities designated for sanctions, travel ban and asset freeze authorities are a hollow shell. Until three months ago, there were no designations for a freeze of assets under U.N. sanctions toward North Korea, meaning that for more than two years, the mandatory asset freeze created in 2006 was never used. And for nearly three years and in the face of continued North Korean provocations, not a single person was designated for a travel ban.

After North Korea's continued nuclear and missile tests this April and May, the new U.S. administration focused on adopting a second sanctions resolution. The three-week negotiation (Resolution 1718 took five days to negotiate) resulted in Resolution 1874, a resolution that modestly expanded the sanctions authorities already on the books. In a positive step toward enforcement, the U.N. Sanctions Committee on North Korea last week agreed to new designations under the sanctions regime. The committee added two materials to the embargo, listed five new entities and individuals for an asset freeze, and for the first time since the travel ban was adopted in 2006, designated five individuals under it. Senior U.S. officials are now touring Asia to discuss implementation of these designations with Asian and Security Council counterparts.

The shift in focus to compliance is right on target but is also where the administration can expect the greatest expenditure of diplomatic resources. Significantly more designations will be needed to avoid a diplomatic game of whack-a-mole. A more thorough application of sanctions is not unprecedented -- compare the eight entities and five individuals subject to North Korean sanctions with the 35 entities and 40 individuals listed under similar sanctions on Iran. But designation justification packages and identifiers are notoriously complicated to compile, all the more so when information on regime entities and individuals is so difficult to obtain. It is no surprise then that this is where the hard work of building consensus and U.S. focus should lie.

If North Korea continues its path of provocation, and there are few signs that it won't, the United States should focus on enforcement, rather than negotiating more architecture. The Obama administration should continue its recent efforts to unite with China, India, Japan, Russia, and South Korea to enforce the arms embargo and to hammer out the search and seizure procedures authorized in Resolution 1874. As North Korea's largest trading partner, China is the lynchpin to enforcement, and as such, the United States should make North Korea's trade and financial dealings with China a priority topic of study and subject of bilateral discussions. Information on trading in banned goods or member-state breaches of sanctions commitments should be brought immediately to the attention of the sanctions committee. The United States should work quickly to propose further entities and individuals for targeted sanctions, and the sanctions committee having taken a positive step in its designations last week, should now be given a long lead to fulfill the terms of its mandate. It should define a list of luxury goods and technologies banned under the sanctions regime, move quickly on further designations proposed by member states, and proactively urge countries to report on measures they have taken to implement the designations. Perhaps most importantly, if and when North Korea expresses an intention to return to negotiations, the Security Council should outline and demand results before allowing the sanctions process to drift once again.

That the situation could rapidly escalate into a military crisis is all the more reason to work quickly to use the wide berth of sanctions authorities so hard won. There is little point arguing about whether coercion is a successful strategy if coercive authorities that already exist have never been tried.

NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

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