Shining a Light on North Korea’s Illicit Shipping and Sanctions Evasion Practices (Part 3)

Lee Kok Leong, our special correspondent, interviews Mathew Ha, research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, on Pyongyang’s illegal maritime tactics to evade sanctions. The Foundation is a Washington DC-based nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute focusing on foreign policy and national security. Mathew’s research includes North Korea’s illicit financing, human rights, the U.S.-Korea alliance, and inter-Korean relations.

MFT: What are the roles played by the Chinese and Russian governments? In your opinion, why do you think they are complicit in these illegal dealings?

FDD: The Chinese and Russian governments have been recently known to be obstructing the reporting process of the aforementioned UN Panel of Experts investigating North Korean sanctions enforcement. News articles quoting former members of this UN Panel have shared several examples of Russia and China obstructing the reporting process due to its concerns over evidence that likely showed sanctioned activities going on in their countries.

Also, in the latest Panel report, the Annex includes a series of emails exchanged between the US, Russian, and Chinese panel members disputing the legitimacy of evidence that underscore the delays in this process that China and Russia initiated.

Regardless, the evidence and analysis that have made it into all the UN Panel reports on North Korean sanctions consistently suggest that Chinese and Russian entities and individuals have been helping North Korea conduct illicit trade and financial activities that would suggest that Beijing and/or Moscow are turning a blind eye towards sanctions evasion activity within their countries.

In turn both governments have used their position in the Security Council as well as this Panel of Experts to prevent certain pieces of evidence being included in the report as well as delaying the publication of the entire report itself to avoid any blame.

China’s motive in essentially turning a blind eye towards North Korean sanctions evasion activities and repeatedly denying the Chinese government’s role in these schemes is because it prefers maintaining the status quo on the Korean peninsula and enabling Kim Jong Un’s regime stability. China is likely concerned that maximum enforcement of sanctions could spark a major economic crisis in North Korea that leads to domestic instability.

For Beijing, political unrest inside North Korea could pose major short-term and long-term challenges to Chinese national interest. For example, in such domestic crisis scenario for North Korea, the immediate concern would be a massive outflow of North Korean refugees across the Sino-North Korean border, which would have destabilizing impact on Chinese economy and security.

Also, Beijing’s long-term concern for any North Korean instability is that such crisis may see the US and South Korea seek to forcefully reunify the Korean peninsula under their leadership. China has valued North Korea as a strategic buffer zone that curbed the US’ influence that brought it closer to the doorstep of China.

However, any chance to reunify the peninsula could see China have the U.S. gain another foothold in the region. Consequently, the Chinese government has more to lose by enabling North Korea’s economy to suffer more.

Russia likely has similar motives to Beijing for enabling these sanctions evasion activities to reduce US and allied influence over the Korean peninsula. In addition, Russia also benefits economically from certain sanctions activity, such as enabling North Korean overseas workers in its Far Eastern regions. This goes against UN Security Council resolutions that required all member states to repatriate North Korean overseas workers back by the end of last December.

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