During 2017 when frequent threats from the US towards the DPRK which culminated in Donald Trump calling Kim Jon-un “rocket man” at the UN General Assembly and saying that the leader of North Korea was “on a suicide mission for himself and his nation”, something that has become increasingly unusual was transpiring at the UN Security Council.
It is becoming ever more rare for Russia and China to agree with resolutions proposed by the US, France or Britain on major issues at the UN. The 3 against 2 divide in the UN Security Council however was overcome when last year China and Russia voted to support further sanctions on the DPRK as proposed by the United States. While Chinese and Russian officials both cautioned the US against its bellicose rhetoric against Pyongyang, it was nevertheless the case that both Moscow and Beijing were opposed to the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the DPRK while both Asian superpowers were simultaneously opposed to the US militarisation of South Korea.
Today however, this unity at the UN Security Council regarding Korea has changed. While elements of the US government are stating that Pyongyang has not progressed with its de-nuclearisation process as rapidly as the US wants and with Donald Trump strategically (however sneakily) blaming China for this alleged phenomenon, Russia has taken a highly assertive step which changes the geopolitical dynamics surrounding the peace process in a highly significant way.
The Security Council was set to debate a report by the 1718 Sanctions Committee, the excerpts of which were leaked widely to the press prior to an official release. From what is known of the report, its authors were highly critical of the current state of the de-nuclearisation process and in this sense discussing the publication would have played into the hands of the most hawkish elements of the US government including UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and US National Security Adviser John Bolton.
This debate will not occur however due to Russia using its UN Security Council veto to quash such a debate before it started. According to Vasily Nebenzia, Russia’s Ambassador to the United Nations:
“Moscow is outraged at the media leak of the report made by a group of experts from the UN Security Council’s 1718 Sanctions Committee on North Korea at the beginning of this month, ahead of its discussion in the specified sanctions body and the official release by the Security Council chairman. It is clear from the contents of the report that the goal of this action is to exert pressure on certain countries over the North Korean record as part of the position to preserve maximal pressure over Pyongyang promoted by some players”.
After a closed Security Council meeting Nebenzia further stated,
“The discussion was vivid. We put on hold the report of the 1718 Sanctions Committee, because we disagree with certain elements of the report, and the conduct of business itself”.
Thus, while the proximate reason for Russia using its veto to stop a debate on the report was due to an ethics breach involving the content of the report being leaked to the international press, Russia’s Ambassador to the UN also stated that the clearly anti-Pyongyang content of the report helped to further convince Russia of the importance of using its veto. When Nebenzia went even further and stated that the report’s content represents an anti-DPRK narrative “promoted by some players” he was self-evidently criticising the United States for adopting a sceptical position on the peace process even in the aftermath of the global praised Singapore summit where Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un agreed to the conditions for the eventual lifting of sanctions on Pyongyang in the reasonable aftermath of de-nuclearisation.
This is significant as it is the first time in recent years that Russia has used its veto against a matter arising before the Security Council whose content seeks to indict the DPRK. From there, it can be logically extrapolated that due to Russia’s deeply important partnership with China, the veto was discussed between Russian and Chinese officials before hand. The decision of Russia to whiled the veto is therefore significant as a Chinese veto would have played into the Trump narrative that an alleged lack of progress in de-nuclearisation is somehow China’s fault. In this sense, China and Russia decided to take a win-win position that allowed the “blame” for US scepticism on the peace process to be spread more evenly between the eastern superpowers while Russia in particular effectively said that it will never again roll over on issues relating to Korea at the UN now that the peace process has changed the geopolitical dynamics in north east Asia. In this sense, it is clear that the peace horse has bolted from the stable no matter how many diversionary tactics the US tries to use to muddle or retard the progress of the peace process.
From the US perspective, the message is clear. While China and Russia are both willing and in fact eager to cooperate on a successful Korean peace process which of course includes de-nuclearisation, the days of China and Russia cooperating with the US and its western partners to pass punitive measures against Pyongyang at the UN are clearly over.
While some in the US clearly have ‘buyers remorse’ in respect of the Korean peace process, for Donald Trump personally, the DPRK is increasingly becoming a bargaining chip to be used in continued discussions on trade with China. China is clearly not amused by such a tactic and as a result, if the US overplays its hand in respect of the DPRK, it could lead to China and Russia bilaterally moving forward with investment into the DPRK on their terms rather than remain content for the US to be the first to give either a formal (at the UN) or informal approval of a post-sanctions era in North Korea.
While some will surely assert that the current developments at the UN signify that the US is attempting to go back on its word and re-start hostilities against the DPRK, the fact that Donald Trump recently stated that he rejects a return to expensive military drills with South Korea and is instead content to blame China for an allegedly slow peace process (while continuing to personally praise Kim Jong-un) helps one to understand a thesis first advanced by geopolitical expert Andrew Korybko in the immediate aftermath of the Singapore summit which suggests that the US would ideally want to turn a post-nuclear DPRK into an economic showcase of an Asian economic success story that was achieved with American rather than Chinese investment.
In this sense, the US is clearly walking a tightrope by trying to force provocative reports down the collective throat of the UN. America wants to have its cake and eat it too in respect of seeking to lure the DPRK closer to the US and away from its historic Russian and Chinese partners while at the same time, the US is busy promulgating excuses designed to delay the eventual lifting of sanctions on the DPRK in order to retain its role as the final arbiter of which countries will and will not be sanctioned as a result of not being able to resist beginning much wanted economic connectivity with the DPRK before the US gives the rest of the world a green light to do so from a position of self-evidently arrogant exceptionalism.
However, if China and Russia both agree that the time is right to begin lifting at least some sanctions on the DPRK, both Asian superpowers could force the US to veto such proposals to lift sanctions at the Security Council. If China and Russia forced a US veto on the lifting of sanctions against the DPRK at the UN, this would cast doubt in Pyongyang regarding whether the US ever intended to lift sanctions and deliver on the economic cooperation promises that Donald Trump presented to Kim Jong-un in Singapore in the form of a highly seductive video presentation. This would of course push the DPRK even closer to China and Russia while undoing much of the trust that Donald Trump built with Pyongyang during the Singapore summit.
At the same time, Russia and China should be aware that if they move too fast in pushing for a lifting of sanctions all the while becoming more economically involved in the DPRK, this could be cynically used by the White House as an excuse to place more tariffs on China and more sanctions on Russia. That being said, depending on the timing, China and Russia may well be in a position to defy the US insistence on clinging onto obsolete UN resolutions and begin expanding trade with the DPRK while helping the de-nucelarisation process without direct US input.
In this sense, the entire scenario unfolding is shaping up to be one that can be summarised by the phrase “who will blink first”? The US clearly wants to retain its power to determine the economic future of the DPRK for its own strategic benefit but now that Russia has shown that it is willing and able to use its UN veto in order to shield the DPRK from a US driven barrage of criticism designed to retard and delay the peace process and related economic regeneration process, the US risks losing all control over the peace process if it pushes too hard, not least because South Korea, while a staunch US ally is taking a subtly more Russian/Chinese view of the peace process because unlike the US, South Korea stands to lose the most should the peace process fall apart. The fact that South Korea is desperate for cheap Russian gas to be piped in through the DPRK’s territory is yet another factor which makes Seoul all the more eager for sanctions to be lifted on its ‘former’ adversary as soon as possible.
In this sense, if the US does not play its cards right, Washington could alienate the DPRK all over again while sowing discontent in Seoul, all the while putting China and Russia in place to be the ultimate superpower partners of an increasingly united Korea. Russia’s vetoing of an anti-Pyongyang report that Nikki Haley was set to revel in makes it clear that America’s delaying tactics will no longer be tolerated by the Asian superpowers.