Early in September the Russia’s president Putin talked North Korea peace with South Korea’s PM Moon Jae-in in Vladivostok. The pair agreed the crisis should be resolved peacefully and Putin expressed his full support for Moon’s efforts in that direction. At the same time Putin rejected Moon’s call for an oil embargo against North Korea.
This was in line with repeated statements by Putin and Russia that usefulness of sanctions in modifying Pyongyang’s behaviour has been exhausted:
“Sanctions of any kind are useless and ineffective,” Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters earlier this month at a summit in Xiamen, China. “They’ll eat grass, but they won’t abandon their programme unless they feel secure.”
And yet a week later the second set of North Korea sanctions passed unanimously at the UN Security Council where Russia holds veto power.
The media focused on the point that this second set of sanctions had been “watered down“, but by that it only meant that not all measures the US wanted were passed. However even these “watered-down” sanctions are anything but insignificant and even include a partial oil embargo. Among other things the UN Security Council:
- Cut off more than 55 percent of gasoline and diesel fuel going to North Korea
- Capped shipments of crude oil into North Korea at current levels
- Baned all North Korean textile exports
- Banned countries from hiring new North Korean workers
What explains the Russians voting for new North Korea sanctions when they were adamant this would be a step in the wrong direction?
One thing the vote was definitely not was an attempt to get along with the US. The relations between Washington and Moscow are at a low point, and the two are busy expelling the other’s diplomats and closing down diplomatic missions.
In fact days before the UN vote Putin ridiculed the idea he is interested in doing favors to the US:
“It is of course embarrassing at the very least to place us on par with North Korea and then ask our help in exercising sanctions against North Korea.”
So why did he vote for the “watered down” sanctions anyway? The only explanation is China. Russia’s vote was not a concession to Washington but to Beijing.
Moscow doubts sanctions are useful or positive, but it recognizes the Korean crisis affects China more than Russia, and values its good relationship with Beijing. If China wants to handle this in a certain way, Putin won’t stand in its way.
After the first round of sanctions was passed the Chinese were quick to point out that “owing to China’s traditional economic ties with North Korea, it will mainly be China paying the price for implementing the resolution“. In other words: ‘this is our backyard, this is our decision, and we are calling the shots’.
For obvious reasons China doesn’t want a nuclear-armed North Korea anymore than the US does, but even leaving aside the question of the wisdom and morality of sanctions against the impoverished nation I think imposing sanctions through the UN is a mistake.
It allows the Chinese leadership to work on something with the US, and to put some visual distance between itself and its sanctions on Pyongyang, but the downside is that unlike unilateral sanctions, UN sanctions once passed can not be rescinded unless all Security Council powers agree. By going the multilateral way China is handing over its trade with North Korea to Washington to keep as a hostage for as long as it pleases.