Even as world leaders tried to display a united front against a nuclearized North Korea in the wake of 20 ballistic-missile tests this year by that country, UN Security Council members remained deeply divided on their willingness to engage economically with the rogue nation.
The divide was clear at a December 15 UN Security Council meeting called by Japan after a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile crashed into the Sea of Japan on Nov. 28.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on countries to take unilateral action beyond the minimum requirements of the UN resolutions.
In contrast, Russia, China and Bolvia positioned themselves against unilateral sanctions and said “sanctions had been imposed in order to spark negotiations, and were not an end in themselves,” according to a UN press release about the meeting.
Tillerson specifically called on Russia and China to increase pressure on North Korea. He criticized Russia’s use of guest workers from North Korea and China’s sales of crude oil.
“Continuing to allow North Korean laborers to toil in slave-like conditions inside Russia in exchange for wages used to fund nuclear weapons programs calls into question Russia’s dedication as a partner for peace,” Tillerson said. “Similarly, as Chinese crude oil flows to North Korean refineries, the United States questions China’s commitment to solving an issue that has serious implications for the security of its own citizens.”
United Nations Secretary‑General António Guterres warned of an increased risk of military confrontation with North Korea (referred to as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) with the high potential for miscalculation due to lack of diplomatic channels. “The situation on the Korean Peninsula is the most tense and dangerous peace and security issue in the world today,” Guterres said.
Guterres outlined North Korea’s testing of nuclear weapons over the past year and said the agency responsible for monitoring nuclear activities “remains unable to access” the country. “The DPRK remains the only country to continue to break the norm against nuclear testing,” he said.
Meanwhile, Guterres asked members to consider humanitarian concerns about the North Korean populations, including 40 percent of those considered to be malnourished, as a separate matter.
The sanctions in the September UN Security Council resolution excluded the crude oil China supplies to North Korean refineries from the Dandong-Siniju pipeline. According to the South China Morning Post, China supplies more than a half a million tons of crude oil a year to North Korea via that pipeline. And that pipeline could not easily be turned off without causing technical problems that would make it difficult to turn it back on.
North Korea increasingly relies on the export of its labor. According to Joseph Micallef of Military.com, some 100,000 to 200,000 laborers from North Korea work in as many as 45 countries around the world, including China, Russia and the Persian Gulf, earning as much as $2-$3 billion a year for the government. Micallef equates the trade to “slave labor.” He also details labor camps inside North Korea that force political prisoners to farm or mine for gold and coal.
For more background on the DPRK’s exports of its labor for income, see a 2015 BBC report.