UN: North Korea's still at it, you know

Surprised? Don’t be, because no one else is either. In fact, this new UN report about how North Korea has dragged its feet on suspending its nuclear-weapons and ICBM programs might come in handy. First, though, a few sunny optimists might have to wipe a little egg off their faces:

North Korea has not stopped its nuclear and missile programs in violation of United Nations sanctions, according to a confidential U.N. report seen by Reuters on Friday.

The six-month report by independent experts monitoring the implementation of U.N. sanctions was submitted to the Security Council North Korea sanctions committee late on Friday.

“(North Korea) has not stopped its nuclear and missile programs and continued to defy Security Council resolutions through a massive increase in illicit ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products, as well as through transfers of coal at sea during 2018,” the experts wrote in the 149-page report.

At first blush, this puts the Trump administration in a PR bind. The president himself has taken credit for a major step forward in ending the standoff with North Korea based on the idea that Kim Jong-un voluntarily froze his work on those programs. The UN report will remind everyone that the process of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula won’t be either quick or easy, and that the Kim regime has a long history of deception and deceit in its engagement with the outside world.

As it happens, though, the reminder comes at a propitious moment. The US issued a warning to Russia and China that we expect the sanctions to get fully enforced until Kim begins complying with UN edicts and cooperating on denuclearization:

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Russia, China and other countries on Saturday against any violation of international sanctions on North Korea that could reduce pressure on the North to abandon its nuclear weapons. Pompeo’s comments came on the heels of a new United Nations report that found North Korea has not stopped its nuclear and missile programs and is violating U.N. sanctions, including through illicit ship-to-ship transfers of oil.

Speaking on the sidelines of an Asian security forum in Singapore, Pompeo told reporters that the U.S. has new, credible reports that Russia is violating U.N. sanctions by allowing joint ventures with North Korean companies and issuing new permits for North Korean guest workers. He said Washington would take “very seriously” any violations, and called for them to be roundly condemned and reversed.

“If these reports prove accurate, and we have every reason to believe that they are, that would be in violation,” Pompeo said, noting that the U.N. Security Council had voted unanimously in favor of the sanctions. “I want to remind every nation that has supported these resolutions that this is a serious issue and something we will discuss with Moscow.”

“We expect the Russians and all countries to abide to the U.N. Security Council resolutions and enforce sanctions on North Korea,” he said. “Any violation that detracts from the world’s goal of finally, fully denuclearizing North Korea would be something that America would take very seriously.”

Russia had earlier pressed Donald Trump to begin engaging with Kim, hoping to dial down the tension and allow Moscow to compete with Beijing for access to North Korea. If they want that engagement to continue, it has to pay dividends to Trump, or else it risks reigniting the fuse that could well lead to military action. Vladimir Putin would hardly want the US to depose Kim and expand its influence in the region, but if they ease up on the sanctions, Putin may leave the US little choice if Kim keeps working on long-range missiles and nuclear warheads.

With that in mind, North Korea’s foreign minister lashed out at the US for its impatience, but insisted his country remained committed to the deal with Trump:

“The DPRK stands firm in its determination and commitment for implementing the DPRK-U.S. Joint Statement in a responsible and good-faith manner,” said Ri Yong Ho, referring to his country by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“What is alarming however is the insistent moves manifested within the U.S. to go back to the old, far from its leader’s intention.” …

“We have initiated goodwill measures of, inter alia, a moratorium on nuclear tests and rocket launch tests and dismantling of nuclear test ground,” Ri said in a statement delivered to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) forum.

“However, the United States, instead of responding to these measures, is raising its voice louder for maintaining the sanctions against the DPRK and showing the attitude to retreat even from declaring the end of the war, a very basic and primary step for providing peace on the Korean peninsula.”

In other words, Kim wants the peace deal first and an end to sanctions before ending either of the two programs threatening the US. That impasse was inevitable but it’s not unresolvable. What will likely happen is a series of concessions tied to verification regimes wherein both countries can maintain leverage throughout the process. It will neither be quick nor easy, and there will be plenty of attempts to backtrack, to obfuscate, and to secretly continue work on weapons and delivery systems. If China and Russia want to avoid war, they’d better get tough with Kim and stay tough until the process is complete.