Russia’s Veto: Dismembering the UN Sanctions Regime on North Korea

On March 28, Russia vetoed a UN resolution renewing the mandate of the UN Panel of Experts (PoE), which monitors UN member states’ enforcement of the UN sanctions regime on North Korea. Among the 15 countries currently sitting on the UN Security Council (including South Korea and Japan), Russia was the only country that rejected the annual renewal. China abstained. Russia’s veto will effectively end the mandate for the PoE, which expires at the end of April 2024.

Q1: Why is Russia’s veto significant?

A1: Russia’s veto is arguably the third step in a systematic effort to undermine the UN sanctions regime on North Korea. Russia previously had supported the most robust sanctions regime in history against North Korea through its agreement to 10 UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCRs) on North Korea. Moscow now has (1) stopped complying with sanctions mandated by these UNSCRs and (2) actively blocked new UNSCRs in response to North Korean ballistic missile tests. Most importantly, it appears to be embarking on new steps to (3) permanently dismantle this regime by ending the mandate of the PoE with yesterday’s veto as well as calling for a “sunset clause” for the existing sanctions regime.

With the Russian veto, the PoE’s mandate expires at the end of April 2024. Established under UNSCR 1874 after North Korea conducted a second nuclear test in 2009, the PoE—made up of a group of seven experts—has monitored the enforcement of international sanctions on North Korea over the past 14 years. Among the subjects of their monitoring investigation have been North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, including nuclear activities in Yongbyon; arms embargos; and, most recently, 58 suspected cyberattacks on cryptocurrency companies.

Q2: Why is Russia doing this?

A2: Russia’s actions reflect deeper strategic cooperation with Pyongyang that has emerged as a result of North Korean support for Putin’s war in Ukraine. CSIS reports show that North Korea has supplied more than 10,000 containers of military equipment and munitions to fill three major storage depots near the front lines of the war, which could amount to more than 3 million rounds of ammunition (according to the U.S. State Department and South Korean Ministry of Defense). North Korea is preparing for a likely reciprocal visit by Putin after Kim Jong-un’s visit last year. And in the latest sign of growing cooperation, the Russian head of the foreign intelligence service, Sergei Naryshkin, met with counterparts in Pyongyang. Concerns abound that Russia may be dropping “long-held non-proliferation norms” with North Korea by supplying sensitive military technologies related to satellites, nuclear submarines, and long-range ballistic missiles in return for North Korean shipments of ammunition. There is also the possibility of co-production arrangements on new munitions to restore North Korean stocks as well as supply more and better ammunition to Russia.

From Putin’s perspective, there is little reason not to support Pyongyang at the UN Security Council in order to continue Russia and North Korea’s mutually beneficial cooperation and gain a decisive advantage in the war when U.S. military aid to Ukraine is stalled in Congress. 

Q3: What are the implications of the Russian veto?

A3: Absent the PoE, UN member states will lack a third party that monitors compliance and closes loopholes in the current sanctions regime. It falls on key member states like the United States, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and other like-minded partners to coordinate intelligence, counter-proliferation efforts, and relevant legislation to enforce sanctions policy. Without Russian or Chinese compliance, this is a tall order. 

Russian efforts to dismember the sanctions regime against North Korea underscore how the UN Security Council is unable to act as the chosen institution of global governance if Russia and China block action. Increasingly, the task of enforcing such sanctions will have to gravitate to the like-minded nations of the Group of Seven (G7). The G7 does not issue resolutions with the same authority as the UN Security Council, but proactive coordination of policies among an expanded G7 membership that could include, for example, Australia, South Korea, Spain, and others may be an imperfect but still effective substitute.

Victor Cha is senior vice president for Asia and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Ellen Kim is deputy director and senior fellow with the Korea Chair at CSIS.

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Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair
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Ellen Kim
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Korea Chair