Russian moves block UN probe of North Korea
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Russian moves block UN probe of North Korea

In a classic under-the-political radar ploy, Russia has vetoed a UN committee investigating North Korean nuclear missile and banking sanctions violations. The low-profile but highly significant sanctions committee regularly monitors illicit actions by Pyongyang to develop, improve and implement the regime's nuclear weapons and offensive missile programmes.

The 15-member UN Security Council established the North Korean overview committee in 2009 through resolution #1718, hence the group's name. But when the council was set to renew the annual mandate in what was usually a pro-forma move, Russia last week used its veto to stop the renewal. China abstained in the vote.

Why is this important? Because the committee has been watching and monitoring the sanction-busting actions of the quaintly titled Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The Russian veto is hardly surprising. Since at least 2011, Moscow, and often Beijing, has opposed council cooperation and accord over such key international security concerns as Syria, Myanmar, Ukraine, Gaza, and Israel. The DPRK is hardly an exception to this deep diplomatic rift. Vetoes and the once-rare double vetoes are now commonplace in the council. Indeed, they are symptoms of the rift between Washington and Moscow.

But why this report?

The Security Council has imposed a series of sanctions on North Korea since 2006 over the regime's nuclear weapons programme. The 1718 Committee details and provides specific descriptions of the ongoing shadow game of North Korean sanctions and outlines its methodology. Since 2019, Moscow and Beijing have attempted to persuade the Security Council to ease DPRK sanctions.

Following the veto, the ambassadors of the US, France, Japan, South Korea and the UK issued a statement: "For the past 15 years, the 1718 Panel of Experts has been the gold standard for providing fact-based, independent assessments, analysis, and recommendations bearing on the implementation of the Security Council resolutions on the DPRK."

The envoys concluded: "We must ask ourselves: Why would any council member break 14 years of unanimous support for this mandate? The answer is clear: Russia chose to silence the DPRK Panel of Experts' reporting on Moscow's own violations of Security Council resolutions."

"Russia's veto today jeopardizes international peace and security, " they added.

The committee has issued its final report, covering the period from July 29, 2023, to Jan 26, 2024. It brings transparency into the dark shadows of North Korea's illegal missile programmes and proliferation, the routes through which Pyongyang gets materials, and equally cites cryptocurrency schemes sustaining North Korea.

The report's summary asserts that the DPRK "continued to flout Security Council sanctions. It further developed nuclear weapons and produced nuclear fissile materials, although its last known nuclear test took place in 2017 ... At least seven ballistic missiles were launched" during the past year, including a third launch of a Hwasong-18 three-stage ICBM in 2023.

US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield added, "In recent years, the DPRK has only continued its unlawful activity, including launching over 100 ballistic missiles since 2022, all in violation of existing Security Council resolutions. These ballistic missile launches are destabilising to the region and undermine the global non-proliferation regime."

Naturally, the report also mentions conventional weapons and details Moscow's transgressions and the transfers from North Korea to Russia last autumn when, in September, 300 containers of weapons were shipped from the North Korean port of Nanjin to Russia.

The report says the Russian merchant vessel Angara and four other ships transported the weapons to Russia via the Black Sea; the arms, including rockets and artillery shells, arrived in October. Given the increasingly closer scientific, military and political cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang, there's probably a good reason why Russia wants to stay "off the radar" on what has become a more formalised weapons and technology transfer with the isolated DPRK regime.

Furthermore, DPRK leader Kim Jong-un ventured to Vladivostok, Russia, last year to meet Vladimir Putin. The Russian president plans to visit Pyongyang in the coming months for follow-up consultations with the North Koreans. Given the tense situation in East Asia, Mr Putin may be pandering to Pyongyang for needed munitions and playing a political spoiler role in the region through an axis of connivance.

John J Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defence issues. He is the author of 'Divided Dynamism: The Diplomacy of Separated Nations; Germany, Korea, China'.

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