North Korea reacts to UN's stern message. What's really going on?

This week the UN Security Council imposed what it calls its broadest and deepest measures against North Korea in response to its January 6 nuclear test and February 7 missile launch, each of which were violations of earlier Security Council resolutions. And it appears these new sanctions were worth the wait. These are a tough and comprehensive mixture of punishment, pressure and persuasion sanctions that the global community has not applied until now with such clout and unity against the DPRK.

The North Korean regime responded hours later with a more active version of its usual bombast protesting UN action by firing six short-range projectiles off its eastern coast into the sea.  Then it announced its nuclear weapons will be at the ready due to ‘gangster sanctions’ which come from the world being duped by US hostility to North Korea.  Nothing could make the new UN sanctions more relevant than this response from Pyongyang.

The multifaceted and complex Security Council resolution passed yesterday lays out the most far-reaching and coordinated sanctions measures – mandatory trade interdiction, a deeper arms embargo, financial sanctions, and bans on travel and luxury goods.  The resolution includes new, unprecedented actions that are required to be taken by all UN member states. They are the strongest in closing off to Pyongyong a number of its lucrative currency moving and earning mechanisms that has permitted it to purchase both banned missile and proliferation material. And it closes loopholes and stifles some DPRK evasion techniques that have frustrated sanctions effectiveness in the past.

Specifically the resolution:

-  Requires all nations to seize assets of North Korean governmental companies engaged in financing DPRK weapons proliferation and sanctions busting, and to deport all entities, like shell companies, and foreign nationals, including diplomats, that are engaged in proliferation financing and trade;

-  Requires all nations to inspect the cargoes on all DPRK ships docking and airlines landing from or going to DPRK and to seize prohibited cargo;

-  Imposes new sectoral sanctions, requiring all states to ban exporting aviation and rocket fuel to DPRK.  Further, it restricts DPRK sale of gold, titanium ore, vanadium ore, and rare earth minerals, the latter being an area where DPRK is trying to attract large international private investment;

-  Requires all nations to ban all weapons trade of any type. To cover loopholes, the resolution has a smart ‘catch-all’ ban on all military material and related goods and there are new prohibitions to curtail the extensive training and arms manufacturing ventures the North has in begun with various nations;

-  Cuts to the heart of DPRK evasion techniques in the past in its re-registering of ships under new names or flags of convenience and names directly 30+ vessels that must have their assets seized;

- Points out to DPRK that there is another path – engaging in the Six Party Talks.

This resolution’s strategy is that with full international community action in a concerted way, backed by the Council’s P5, to search and seize materials, to cut off DPRK classic evasion techniques of shadow financial systems and front companies, and to expel diplomats and businesses moving money and material, Pyongyong’s elite will be forced to the bargaining table.

Now every port of call and airport will inspect DPRK bound or origin goods. The new restrictions of conventional military equipment and support systems are far-reaching and long overdue given that arms exports are a major source of revenue for DPRK and it can reverse engineer many imported items.  And government and quasi- official agencies, North Korea's Ministry of Atomic Energy Industry and its National Aerospace Development Agency (NADA) which was responsible for February's rocket launch, and the rather secretive General Reconnaissance Bureau, are all sanctioned.

This complex resolution is the product of weeks of intense dialogue and negotiation between Beijing and Washington. It indicates the two capitals, via the Council, wanted to leave very little to misinterpretation in Pyongyong about strength of the measures imposed and the message it conveys.  In worrying about sanctions enforcement, especially by China, skeptics continually claim that Beijing would rather obstruct sanctions than be a party to the destruction of the DPRK economy that would create political instability.

But these sanctions illustrate that there is solid ground between those two extremes - a dramatic increase in multi-sector constraints that now have the teeth to bite and possibly change the cost-benefit ratio facing Kim Jun-un in continuing his nuclear testing and missile launches which destabilize the region.  In many ways these activities take pressure off of China. More vigorous enforcement by the region and now all member states can pre-empt or overcome some Chinese lax enforcement.  If the sanctions work, there will be cargo and material that never reaches Chinese ports or Beijing airport. And China benefits from DPRK being constrained in the emerging rare earth minerals market.

Indeed, Beijing will be tested in enforcing aviation bans and on shutting down banking connections and financial houses which lubricate DPRK trade and their construction projects in African countries. But these outcomes will be known quickly and addressed in big power diplomacy.

These sanctions, in and by themselves, will not force DPRK to halt their program or curtail their intentions to be a ‘nuclear player’.  But they will retard the pace of their nuclear - and especially their missile - programs, end much of DPRK’s growing trade in arms material, cut-off more fully external collaborators and illicit networks that have helped the regime evade prior sanctions.

Significantly, government elites are hit from multiple angles that undercut their financial and political privileges. UN action condemns them for diverting precious state resources from care of North Koreans suffering hardships under its policies.  The Council also states strongly its support for a resumption of the Six Party Talks as a way forward to resolve the differences between the world community and DPRK. Thus the sanctions are meant to focus DPRK’s mind and newly constrained resources on diplomacy rather then continued defying international norms.

George A. Lopez, Hesburgh Professor Emeritus of Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute, served on the UN Panel of Experts monitoring sanctions on North Korea in 2010-11.