Russia and China urge UN to lift North Korea sanctions
Resolution unlikely to get passed as Pyongyang is still advancing its missile programme
China and Russia on Monday proposed the UN Security Council lift a ban on North Korea exporting statues, seafood and textiles, according to a draft resolution seen by Reuters, in a move Russia said is aimed at encouraging talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
The draft also called for a ban to be lifted on North Koreans working abroad and the termination of a 2017 requirement for all such workers to be repatriated by next week. The draft would also exempt inter-Korean rail and road co-operation projects from UN sanctions.
It was not immediately clear when or if the draft resolution could be put to a vote in the 15-member Security Council. A resolution needs nine votes in favour and no vetoes by the US, France, Britain, Russia or China to pass.
“We’re not rushing things,” Russian UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said, adding that negotiations with council members would begin on Tuesday. He said the sanctions they had proposed lifting were “not directly related to the North Korea nuclear programme, this is a humanitarian issue.”
A US state department official said now was not the time for the Security Council to consider lifting sanctions on North Korea as the country was “threatening to conduct an escalated provocation, refusing to meet to discuss denuclearisation, and continuing to maintain and advance its prohibited weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programmes.”
The sanctions on industries that Russia and China have proposed lifting earned North Korea hundreds of millions of dollars and were put in place in 2016 and 2017 to try to cut off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told reporters on Tuesday that some sanctions should be lifted in light of North Korea’s compliance “with relevant resolutions”.
“We hope the Security Council will speak with one voice in support of a political resolution,” Geng told a regular briefing, adding that the need for a resolution of the situation on the Korean peninsula was becoming more urgent.
The US, Britain and France have insisted that no UN sanctions should be lifted until North Korea gives up its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Pyongyang has been subject to UN sanctions because of those programs since 2006.
“On North Korea, as in the past, it’s very important that the council maintains unity,” German UN ambassador Christoph Heusgen said on Monday.
Concerns were growing internationally that North Korea could resume nuclear or long-range missile testing — suspended since 2017 — because denuclearisation talks between Pyongyang and Washington have stalled.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump have met three times since June 2018, but no progress towards denuclearisation has been made and Kim has given Trump until the end of 2019 to show flexibility.
North Korea’s UN envoy declared earlier in December however, that denuclearisation was off the table.
Progress using diplomacy
The state department official said Trump remained committed to making progress using diplomacy.
US special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, ended a three-day visit to South Korea on Tuesday where he tried to salvage negotiations but did not appear to get a response from Pyongyang to his call to discuss “all issues of interest”.
On Monday, Biegun reached out directly to the North, saying: “It is time for us to do our jobs. Let’s get this done. We are here, and you know how to reach us”.
Nebenzia said the draft resolution was aimed at encouraging talks between the US and North Korea. “That’s the whole idea, we don’t do this resolution in spite, we really want to facilitate,” he added.
The draft welcomes “the continuation of the dialogue between the US and the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] at all levels, aimed at establishing new US-DPRK relations, building mutual confidence and joining efforts to build a lasting and stable peace on the Korean Peninsula in a staged and synchronised manner”.
It also calls the so-called six-party talks between North Korea, South Korea, China, the US, Russia and Japan to be resumed or the launching of “multilateral consultations in any other similar format, with the goal of facilitating a peaceful and comprehensive solution through dialogue”.
Russia and China have long said the Security Council should reward Pyongyang after Kim pledged in 2018 to work towards denuclearisation.
At a council meeting on North Korea last week — called by the US — China’s UN Ambassador Zhang Jun said sanctions should be adjusted to “head off a dramatic reversal” of the situation.
The draft resolution circulated to the Security Council by Russia and China said the sanctions would be terminated “with the intent of enhancing the livelihood of the civilian population.”
Pyongyang is famous for building huge, socialist-style statues, which it exports mainly to African countries. Some analysts estimated that North Korea had made tens of millions of dollars selling such statues.
It also made millions of dollars from seafood. A UN diplomat said in 2017 that North Korea had been expected to earn about $295m from seafood exports that year.
Textiles were North Korea's second-biggest export after coal and other minerals in 2016, totalling $752m, according to data from the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency. Nearly 80% of textile exports went to China, according to Chinese customs data.
The wages of workers sent abroad also provided foreign currency for the Pyongyang government. A UN human rights investigator said in 2015 that North Korea was forcing more than 50,000 people to work abroad, mainly in Russia and China, earning between $1.2bn and $2.3bn a year.