Mark HibbsChina and DPRK Sanctions-Busting

On Friday, June 29, the United Nations Security Council will release a report telling us about efforts by the DPRK to obtain weapons and WMD-related items in violation of UNSC sanctions. That’s interesting because, according to two Japanese press reports which appeared on June 22, this is the first time since 2010 that China–one of the countries fielding experts to a consulting body to the UNSC Sanctions Committee concerning the DPRK–has permitted the UNSC to release these documents.

Here’s the first Japanese press report. Here’s the second report.

The two Japanese press accounts assert that people at or near the UNSC have complained that China hasn’t fully cooperated with the expert group’s efforts to monitor the international community’s compliance with sanctions agains the DPRK. I have no idea who the Japanese reporters were talking to, but I can tell you that they certainly didn’t invent that allegation. On more than one occasion over the last three years, after surfacing at Penn Station and hopping a cab over to Murray Hill, I have gotten fairly elaborate thumbnails about this from a number of people who claim to be in the know.

The good news, I guess, is that China is now not inhibiting the UNSC from publishing its report on DPRK sanctions-busting. The bad news is that–if I rely on people I’ve talked to, not the above media accounts–Pyongyang is getting a steady stream of nuclear-related equipment from foreign sources, including Chinese sources. And, yes, that includes goods for the DPRK’s now-official uranium centrifuge enrichment program. North Korean procurement people are working in China, they’re working in Russia, and they’re working in Europe. Hardly a surprise. I’m also not shocked to hear that the DPRK is getting nuclear dual-use equipment and aluminum casing preforms for P-2-type maraging steel centrifuge rotors they’re setting up in Yongbyon. As my readers know, beginning a decade ago the DPRK tried to procure 6061-T6 aluminum tubing for these machines from Europe, but the transaction involved efforts to transship materials to the DPRK via China.

Seen from a broad-brush perspective, people who are tracking this trade offer two fundamentally different explanations for the steady trickle of Chinese goods and materials finding their way to North Korea.

View one is that Chinese export control authorities don’t have the resources and expertise to effectively lock down all materials and equipment, including especially dual-use items, in this vast and far-flung country.

View two is that, for political reasons, China is disinclined to intervene to prevent at least a modicum amount of this trade from taking place. The idea here is that Beijing sees the DPRK as a permanent fixture in the region’s political firmament, and that, if so, there may be benefits for China in thwarting the resolve of others in the Sanctions Committee–in particular Japan, the ROK, and the US–which take the categorical position that sanctions are sanctions.



  1. Amy (History)

    Would you happen to know what the legal text of the relevant sanctions specifically says? Often it is “calls upon” nations to not trade etc.

    If so, then the sanctions are a sort of suggestion to nations not to do XYZ.

    [Just like UNSCR 487 has a “calls upon” Israel not to attack nuclear facilities or issue such threats but it does so — viz. Syria — in contravention of UNSCR 487 anyway.]

  2. joshua (History)

    Interesting question. The operative verb in the key passage of UNSCR 1718 (2006) is “decides.” The Security Council

    “8. Decides that:

    “(a) All Member States shall prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to the DPRK, through their territories or by their nationals, or using their flag vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in their territories, of…” a variety of proscribed goods — see the text for the full listing.

    UNSCR 1874 (2009) also uses “decides” to expand the scope of the above paragraph (paragraphs 9 and 10) and to grant expanded authority to UN Member States to conduct enforcement actions (paragraph 14). On the other hand, it uses the milder “calls upon” in urging all Member States to take particular steps in carrying out the abovementioned decisions. See paragraphs 11, 12, and 13.

    There’s still more to the ins and outs of 1874, but that’s the gist of it.

    • joshua (History)

      Links to the full texts of the Resolutions are here:

    • Johnboy (History)

      For those who may be wondering about the between “decides” and “calls upon”, Article 25 of the UN Charter says this:
      “The Members of the United Nations agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council in accordance with the present Charter.”

      You can’t become a member state of the UN without agreeing with that statement.

      So “Decides that…..” means that what follows is not an optional-extra.

      A “decision” of the Council places all member states under a legal obligation to Do As They Are Told (providing, of course, that the UN SC has the legal authority to actually make that decision: that’s the “in accordance with the present Charter” bit).

      So Joshua has just pointed out that China does not have any leeway i.e. the UNSC has “decided”, and according to a treaty that China willingly signed (i.e. the UN Charter) the Chinese are obliged to carry out that decision.

  3. Johnboy (History)

    Mark: “this is the first time since 2010 that China–one of the countries fielding experts to a consulting body to the UNSC Sanctions Committee concerning the DPRK–has permitted the UNSC to release these reports”

    Just out of morbid curiousity, how can China block the release of these reports?

    Did China branch-stack that sanctions committee?

    That committee has to report to SOMEONE, even if the report isn’t for public release, so does the report go to the UNSC, or to the Director General?

    • P Konijn (History)

      As far as I know the Panels prepare the reports, which are then discussed first in the relevant Sanction Committee. Following the close of the Committee’s consideration, the Chair of the Committee, with the consent of the members, conveys a letter to the UNSC President transmitting the PoE report and requesting its issuance as a document of the UNSC.

      Blocking reports by UN panels of experts monitoring the implementation of UNSC sanctions (see for a list) happens regularly. In 2011 publication of panel reports on Iran and DPRK were blocked, reportedly by Russia and China respectively.
      Also in 2010 UN member states reacted strongly to panel reports and tried to block the release of the reports or tried to influence the composition of the panels to their advantage. In 2010 reports on the DPRK and Sudan were blocked for months by China, a report on Iran was not published at all. Usually these reports are leaked to the press or others.

      China and others are also regularly critizised in panel reports or suboptimal responses to information requests related to sanctions violations in places like Darfur and Ivory Coast.

      It is not clear why China is playing difficult when they know that the findings of the PoE are anyway known to the other P5 members or the whole of the UNSC. It could be because they do not want to loose face publicly when the reports show that their export controls are flawed.

      From the top of my head, I believe only Liberia and Eritrea have been sanctioned by the UNSC for deliberately violating UN embargoes on other countries. In the case of Eritrea it took several years and other misbehaviour before the UNSC could agree on sanctions.

    • Johnboy (History)

      Well, yeah, that’s a excellent explanation of how a report gets to the UNSC President, but you still haven’t explained how China *blocks* a report getting out of committee.

      I am assuming from your explanation that the block occurs here: “the Chair of the Committee, with the consent of the members, conveys a letter to the UNSC President”….

      Two possibilities:
      a) That “consent” has to be unanimous (in which case China doesn’t need to branch-stack) or
      b) That “consent” is via simple majority / two-thirds majority / whatever (in which case branch-stacking is needed).

      Which one?
      Is it (a) or (b)?

    • P Konijn (History)

      For sure publication of PoE reports can be blocked at the UNSC level, as far as I understand by veto of a P5 member.

      Consideration of the report by the sanction committee can also take substantial time. I actually am not so sure the SC can block the report forever or tell the UNSC not to publish it, but they can delay.

      Finally, P5 members have some influence on what the PoE related to DPRK sanctions will write in its report, as the PoE consists of representatives from the P5 (and Japan). Obviously the influence is limited, because the reports anyway contain criticism.

    • Johnboy (History)

      “For sure publication of PoE reports can be blocked at the UNSC level, as far as I understand by veto of a P5 member.”

      That implies that these reports require a UNSC Resolution in order to be published, which I find very hard to believe.

      “I actually am not so sure the SC can block the report forever or tell the UNSC not to publish it, but they can delay.”

      Well, that statement stretched credulity because if the report reaches the UNSC marked “not for publication” then it’ll simply get leaked, since the Security Council keeps secrets like, well, a leaky sieve.

      I am assuming that if you want to prevent one of the permanent members from leaking the report to the press (no names, of course) then you actually have to prevent it from reaching the Security Council, but I’m uncertain how China actually does that, and I’m not overly convinced that you have explained how it is done.

    • P (History)

      I have been informed that in the case of the first PoE report about the DPRK it was up to the UNSC to decide on whether to have the report issued or not. The proposal to have it issued was put to the Council members under a no objection procedure. Objections were raised and publication was blocked for 5 months.

      So, I guess not a ‘veto’ de jure but de facto.

      Usually, the PoE first go to the respective Sanctions Committee which deliberates on it and sends it to the UNSC. However in the case of DPRK sanctions, pursuant to para 26 of resolution 1874 (2009), the Panel submitted at least the first report , and I assume the subsequent further ones too, directly to the UNSC bypassing the Committee.

      And yes, the reports do tend to leak regardless of the procedures.

    • Johnboy (History)

      OK, thanks, that makes much more sense.

  4. Amy (History)

    Thank you folks for clearing that up.

    I guess the question is what can the UNSC do about it if one of the P5 flaunts sanctions etc.? Since the P5 have veto any UNSC action against any of the P5/UNSC can be vetoed.

    Basically, my understanding is that none of the P5 can officially do any wrong to the extent that they can veto any real action on their wrongness.

    China may be drawing a line in the sand w/r/t/ Iran sanctions: i.e. why don’t you just try and stop me — see what I am doing in NK? Oh, and I’ll go ahead and release the reports too…

    • Johnboy (History)

      Amy: “I guess the question is what can the UNSC do about it if one of the P5 flaunts sanctions etc.?”

      The Security Council? The answer is “nothing”.

      But the important thing to remember is that this is by design, not by fault.

  5. ian stewart (History)

    I put on an event in Qingdao in February for the Chinese carbon fibre and alloys firms on implementing UN sanctions. We focused specifically on UN sanctions rather than on implementing export controls in general specifically because UN sanctions are binding on both the Chinese government and Chinese firms (as they are on firms the world over).

    What was interesting about the event was that many of the attendees were from firms that had previously been sanctioned by the US for exporting goods to programs of concern. The message was clear: those firms (many of which were state owned) had been non-compliant, but now they have in place internal compliance programs what meet international best practice).

    Coincidently, while there may be no reprimand for the Chinese government if it flaunts sanctions, I found that Chinese firms do not want to appear on US denied party lists, thus providing a driver for Chinese firms not to become involved in proliferation. I believe this is because they understand that western firms, particularly the defence, nuclear and aerospace companies into which so many high-tech Chinese manufactures wish to supply, will not buy from an entity that has been designated by the US.

    From that workshop and conversations I’ve had with officials in China, I believe that view one is correct.

    • mark (History)

      Hi Ian. Very helpful comments as usual, thanks.

      Advocates of what I call “view one” in this post also sometimes assert that Chinese bureaucratic stovepiping inhibits effective export control pursuit by China. The status of military-run Chinese enterprises might be part of that picture.

      Experts lending credence to the less-benign “view two” explanation for apparent Chinese export control failures invariably assert that Beijing sees strategic export policy as 1.) a vehicle for counteracting U.S. hegemony and 2.) a practical demonstration of China’s support for strategic partners (in this case the DPRK).

      Does the open literature on Sino-DPRK trade include any detailed treatment–pro or con–of “view two?” John W. Garver, “China & Iran: Ancient Partners in a Post-Imperial World,” contains an extensive discussion of something that looks like “view two” concerning China’s dual-use and WMD-related goods trade with Iran. There’s a detailed, if somewhat speculative historical discussion of China’s considerations about how to respond to U.S. concerns about Iranian procurement activities. Above and beyond the fussy details of national and international trade regulations, Garver’s tableau includes Chinese leaders at a much higher level of government taking decisions concerning Iran about whether to follow, or how to interpret, export control guidelines and norms, guided by China’s supreme national strategic interest.

    • Jan (History)


      the comparison with Iran is interesting, but problematic. A pretty convincing account can be made that China has used proliferation as a strategic asset in the Iran case, allowing dual-use technology slip through when Beijing has found it in its interest.

      That said, North Korea is a very different case. While a nuclear Iran is not seen as a security threat to China, North Korea is probably a different story.

      The TEL-story, which has been covered in detail in this blog, also lends support to thesis #1. The whole story was an embarrassment to China – if they would have wanted to leak technology to NK, they could have done it in a much less clumsy way.

  6. Andy (History)

    It seems to me that both views could be operative depending on the circumstances and geo-strategic context. Also, corruption is always a possibility, though I supposed that would fall under view one.

  7. mark (History)


    There is an essential difference between not having sufficient resources to control trade, and deciding that it is not in your interest to control it. But I agree that in principle the two are not mutually exclusive on the operative level.

    I have a document from 1984 in my files which is an internal memo written by German federal government staffers. In the process of passing this paper around for an interagency discussion, one official with apparent glee scribbled a comment into the margin recording for posterity that he and his colleagues had thrown yet another U.S. non-paper complaint (“demarche-mallow” was the term the Germans used) about the export activities of company X and Y into the waste basket.

    There is a difference between deciding that authorities have no interest in or motivation for controling trade, and deciding that, it is in the country’s interest to abet or support a WMD program in another state. Garver’s work suggests that on Sino-Iran on some specific occasions in the not too distant past the space between what I call “view one” and “view two” has been grey and slippery. He doesn’t write about North Korea.

  8. Andy (History)


    Thanks for the reply! I understand your points and agree generally that there is a substantial difference. That said however, it’s certainly possible (and not exactly rare in many parts of the world) for a government to have structural or resource impediments to control certain activities (not just limited to trade) yet utilize a strategic calculus regarding whatever they do control. There’s also the case where a government knows what’s going on and knows that it can’t exercise control (because of resources or whatever), yet actively decides not to correct the resource deficiency.

    The point I’m trying to make here is that these things are often a lot more complicated than they appear on the surface.

  9. Cthippo (History)

    The fact that China is supplying NKs high priority programs also gives China another source of leverage on the NK government. If the North gets out of hand, all China needs to do is beef up their export controls and they can put pressure on the NK government without causing a humanitarian problem or running the risk of destabilization. I wonder if allowing this report to be released is an even more subtle form of pressure.

    One lesson that I think the US has failed to learn is that when you have no trade or ties with another state, you have very little leverage over their behavior. North Korea can get away with the stuff it does because the western powers have boxed themselves into a position where we have no influence on the North’s actions except to threaten war, and they know that it’s going to take a pretty high threshold for us to do that.

    • mark (History)


      The corollary of this argument would be that, if you are going to cut off all ties to a juche state like this, you had better make sure that everyone is on the same page about shutting down their clandestine WMD programs–and that means China but also all other 45 PGs in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. And even if all NSG states are united in political will, if their resources don’t match their aspirations they will fail, as they have. The NSG last week had a discussion about North Korean proliferation. So did they draw any lessons from what will be in the UNSC/POE report about to be released?

  10. Sharif (History)

    I believe it is impossible to understand this in isolation. I think China sees at least the following:

    — US nuclear aid to India, in possible violation of NPT (at least spirit).

    — US aid in missile defense and rocketry to Japan

    — US proposed aid in missile defense and rocketry to South Korea

    — Japan’s recent move to possibly begin nuclear weaponization studies, in violation of the NPT (at least the spirit, again)

    In light of these facts, it is quite possible that China thinks its support of NK is justified.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      China does not fear Japan or South Korea in any significant way; they could make a mess for China’s sea routes but that’s all, really. India is technically potentially hostile and on the border, but it’s a long cold mountain border and India is not really territorially aggressive in a way China needs to fear.

      China fears internal instability and lack of access to resources. NK – and the surrounding nations – do not factor in any realistic way into lack of access to resources. NK could contribute to internal instability.

    • Johnboy (History)

      George, what the Chinese fear is the USA, and what alarms them most of all is the USA’s propensity to exceptionalism i.e. the American belief that it gets to play by different rules.

      In that respect Sharif’s argument makes a lot of sense e.g. the Chinese see the Americans indulging in this behaviour without any concern for “blowback”, and they see that it is in their interest to remind the Americans that it ain’t necessarily so.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Johnboy –

      This must be some fascinating new definition of “fear” I have not yet heard of, that prompts them to tie their economy to ours so terribly closely, send many or most of their best and brightidt young minds to us to educate, freely accept our tourists and send many in return, etc. etc.

      As opposed to the definition I used, which I would expand into concern about being an existential threat.

      In one narrow slice of reality and one tiny slice of deep paranoia they may fear us in my sense. The reality being that they see outright Taiwan declaration of independence as risking internal instability, and they will use force to deter that and deter us from encouraging that. The deep paranoia being that we might secretly be out for regime change against the Chinese Communist Party.

      Quite obviously they (their society, leadership in the party, economics, etc.) do not see us as an (or as actively encouraging an) existential threat to them.

    • Johnboy (History)

      George, where did you drag up this idea that an “existential threat” is the definition of “fear”?

      It may sound splendidly dramatic, but most countries don’t act like Israel i.e. they don’t slap the label “existential threat” on anything and everything.

      China fears the USA. They fear its power – which is very much greater than theirs – and they are deeply worried that this power is in the hands of a country whose foreign policy is demonstrably heavy-handed and erratic, and whose political institutions seem to be geared towards throwing up dim-witted non-entities as leaders.

      They can hold that view WITHOUT coming to the conclusion that the USA is an “existential threat” to them, and to claim otherwise is to defy history.

      In the 19th century the British Empire feared Imperial Russia, and that feeling was mutual.

      That mutual fear powered The Great Game, and not once during that time did the Brits view the Ruskies as an “existential threat” to them, nor did the Czars view Queen Vic as an “existential threat” to their rule.

      Honestly, the wonks do spout nonsense some times.

  11. Sharif (History)

    George —

    China is concerned about the US and, to an extent, India.

    Japan, South Korea and India are more or less aligned with the US in nuclear and missile defense matters which concern China highly.

    China likely sees NK as a counterweight to US influence in the region.

    Same old, really.

  12. JM (History)

    I don’t understand what Mark Hibbs means by an absence of reporting since 2010. What kind of reporting? Perhaps that is explained in the Asahi articles, which are behind a pay wall.
    A visit to the NKorea-related UN sanctions committee website ( shows six publicly available annual reports since 2007. The latest report is Jan. 9 2012 and has a calendar year 2011 reporting period. There were 3 alleged violations in 2011. All alleged violations remain under investigation. The Jan. 9, 2012 report does not cite any alleged violation by China or any other state.
    Also, the sanctions committee mandate was set to expire in June 2012 but was renewed until July 2013 by the Security Council. It’s unclear why a publicly available report (I assume “will release a report” means publicly available) is coming out, as M. Hibbs (or the Asahi) reports, on June 29 when the committee just had its mandate renewed.

    • mark (History)

      JM, please note:

      1.) I did not write that there had been an “absense of reporting since 2010” in reference to the Sanctions Committee nor did I say there had been no reporting by the Sanctions Committee at any time.

      2.) The blog says in paragraph 1 that this is the first time that a report from experts to a consulting body to the UNSC Sanctions Committee will be published since 2010.

      3.) The six annual reports which were published and are on the website you refer to are reports from the Sanctions Committee. These annual Sanctions Committee reports are not the reports from the Panel of Experts to that committee. The POE report for 2010 was published. The POE report for 2011 was withheld.

    • P Konijn (History)

      Just to clarify how in general terms the reporting about sanctions imposed by the UNSC sanctions takes place.

      The Sanctions committee submits annual reports, which are concise and sum up the the main relevant events and issues, including violations or alleged violations. Usually these reports do not include details of the alleged violations and do not mention the states involved.

      For most UNSC sanctions the UNSC has decided, by way of resolution, to establish a Panel of Experts (PoE, for some sanctions called Group of Expert or Monitoring Group). These panels consist of between about 4 and 6 experts, appointed with consent from the UNSC. The PoEs investigate if the sanctions are adhered to by UN member states. They obtain information from governments and elsewhere about alleged violations and will investigate the information they have. Often this involves requesting assistance and information from governments. The results of these investigations are recorded in so called ‘final’ reports by the PoE which are usually submitted to the UNSC once a year and which are usually published as UNSC documents (there are also interim reports which are not made public). These documents contain considerable detail, including about parties (incl. states) and goods involved in violations. The level varies from PoE to PoE.

      The PoE established pursuant to resolution 1874 (2009), the DPRK PoE, has submitted reports in 2010 and 2011.

      The first one was published after considerable delay:

      The second one was never published because it was blocked by a UNSC member, but it was leaked. See e.g.:

      The question is what drove China to block the public release of the 2nd report and why did they agree to publish the 3rd one (which reportedly will be available from 29 June).

  13. Mikio HARUNA (History)

    Unfortunately, the probable source of this story committed suicide on June 20th. I think he took responsibility of disclosing the confidential informations to a reporter. Japan’s deputy foreign minister said nothing about the death in response to questions at a press conference, even avoiding any comments. The person, 47 years old, was on loan from the Maritime Safety Agency to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Agency searched the freighter last October, when the boat entered Osaka Port, and confiscated export documents, which are compelling evidences indicating China exported the special TEL vehicles in violation of the U.N. Security Council resolution.

  14. tobid001 (History)

    Here’s the 2012 report of the panel of experts which was published yesterday:

    • mark (History)

      I’ll be posting again shortly in referal to this report.

    • JohnLopresti (History)

      The link to the ‘official document system of the united nations’ blocks downloads over at+t narrowband. I wonder if there is an archived version of yesterday’s PoE report elsewhere accessible online without the broadband requirement.

    • mark (History)
  15. JohnLopresti (History)

    Thanx, Mark.

    I appreciate your link, and Joshua’s.