These New UN Sanctions are a Key Test for the Obama Administration. Will North Korea Give Up the Bomb?

The Security Council just enacted the toughest sanctions against North Korea in twenty years. How tough? For one, all shipments to and from North Korea are now subject to a mandatory cargo inspection regime. The resolution also bans the export of rare earth metals, tightens sanctions on North Korean banks, and compels states to expel any North Korean citizen engaged in prohibited activities, among many other things.

To be sure there are some holes. The resolution generally bans the export of North Korean oil and coal, unless the revenue derived from those exports can be demonstrated to be unrelated to military activities.The later exemption was carved out at the behest of China, which is the only country that imports coal and oil from North Korea.  And like any sanctions regime, these measures are only as strong as the degree to which countries actually enforce them.

But for now, at least on paper, this sanctions package is nothing like we have ever seen.

Image credit: US Mission to the UN. Statement delivered February 29
Image credit: US Mission to the UN. Statement delivered February 29

But will it work?

This resolution is a huge test for the international community in general and the Obama administration in particular. It is the clearest manifestation yet of the Obama administration’s strategy of using coordinated international diplomacy to compel the North Koreans back to the negotiating table. Moments after the resolution was adopted, the USA was unequivocal about this stated purpose. “The goal of these groundbreaking sanctions is to convince Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table and agree to complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization,” the US Mission the UN said in a statement emailed to reporters.

The Obama administration’s strategy of using diplomacy at the United Nations to change the behavior of the North Korean government is in stark contrast to the approach the Bush administration pursued when it took office in 2001. Back then, the Bush administration broke off negotiations intended to prevent North Korea’s nuclear breakout. A few years later, North Korea got the bomb.

That strategy was an obvious failure. Cooler heads in the Bush administration eventually prevailed and  then participated in negotiations with North Korea. But the genie was out of the bottle by then, and those negotiations failed. Now, three nuclear tests and four (comparatively mild) UN Security Council sanctions resolutions later, the international community has arrived at a key inflection point: will the exceedingly tough sanctions that just unanimously passed the Security Council be the cudgel that finally compels Pyongyang back to the negotiating table?  

If this works, the resolution will be a powerful affirmation of the Obama administration’s approach to nuclear diplomacy more broadly. That is: 1) rally the world around a common goal; 2) leverage the UN Security Council to impose harsh global sanctions against the offending regime; 3) negotiate in good faith should the country return to the table.

It worked with Iran. We don’t yet know if this strategy will succeed in North Korea. But it is clear that it’s worth giving it a shot because it’s the only real option the international community has at this point.