Will new sanctions be enough to dissuade Pyongyang from firing missiles?

Tension is rising between Western countries and the North Korea. Since November, Pyongyang has tested a record number of missile despite warnings from the United States, Japan and South Korea. The latest: a ballistic missile that fell in Tokyo’s exclusive economic zone on Friday, west of Hokkaido. This missile appears to be its latest ICBM from Pyongyang, whose potential range would allow it to hit the American continent. A new provocation which triggered concern on the other side of the globe, the member countries of the G7 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Great Britain and the United States) calling for a new set of sanctions against the regime of Kim Jong -a.

Can this reaction succeed? Can it even be effective after years of Western sanctions against North Korea? How could Pyongyang react to this new Western blockage? Some answers with Marianne Péron-Doise, associate researcher at Iris (Institute of international and strategic relations), and specialist in strategic issues in Asia.

How to explain the acceleration of missile tests by North Korea?

While firing has resumed since 2021 after the failure of negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington, North Korea has increased its ballistic missile tests tenfold in 2022, and particularly since October. According to a count of World, this year, no less than 75 intercontinental and space missiles of short and medium range have been fired. And the situation is not on the way to resolution. “North Korea wants to move to an operational stage on its nuclear missiles”, explains to 20 minutes Marianne Péron-Doise who foresees “a nuclear launch in the medium term”. Thus, the country led by Kim Jong-un wants to demonstrate its ability to hit American territory, with an increasing range of fire. In doing so, North Korea is trying to equip itself with a ballistic capability but also nuclear, first of all in a logic of deterrence.

But not only. “It is no longer just a matter of deterrence, it is also the ability to repel an attack and win a war,” said Antoine Bondaz, director of the Korea program at the Foundation for Strategic Research, at the World. In addition to this deterrent nuclear force, North Korea also wants to “normalize its nuclear force within the armed forces with specialized units”, adds Marianne Péron-Doise. “We are witnessing an affirmation and normalization of nuclear capabilities in the North Korean arsenal,” she continues. “This year, North Korea has improved its ballistic capabilities with the stated intention of developing a tactical nuclear program, developed Nicolas de Riviere, the permanent representative of France to the United Nations, on November 4 last before the members of the security Council. It is using increasingly aggressive nuclear rhetoric, as highlighted by the update in September of its nuclear doctrine”.

What sanctions are already targeting North Korea?

For nearly twenty years, South Korea has faced Western sanctions. As early as 2006, the Security Council of the ONU votes in particular to ban the export of luxury products to North Korea, several financial assets are frozen and several personalities are prohibited from traveling abroad. Ten years later, major restrictions on North Korea’s coal exports, much of it destined for China, were imposed, such as an embargo on the export of copper, nickel, silver and zinc from the Asian country. The year 2016 marks the last series of sanctions taken against Pyongyang, even if certain entities, like the European Union, have adopted other measures since then, the complete list of which can be found on the website of the European Council. In summary, the UN Security Council has passed nearly a dozen resolutions imposing sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear activity and missile launches since 2006.

Again, the Group of Seven foreign ministers said on Monday that North Korea’s repeated missile strikes “further destabilize the region, despite calls from the international community for peace and stability”. The G7 statement then calls for “a united and robust response from the international community, including the need for the UN Security Council to take significant additional action.” These have not been detailed.

Can they be effective?

Faced with these restrictions, North Korea has been able to adapt. These sanctions “no longer have much capacity for nuisance, especially in everything related to the exchange of goods”, notes Marianne Péron-Doise. Indeed, Pyongyang managed to circumvent the sanctions, as the UN notes in a report published on November 4th. Nicolas de Riviere writes: “North Korea circumvents sanctions daily, by sea, but also via its cyberattacks which directly allow it to finance its programs”. This is why, “we must maintain the pressure and adapt it in certain areas”, he adds.

But North Korea, now accustomed to international sanctions, also seems to be tempted to exploit the current context which “could explain this resumption of the initiative in shooting”, analyzes Marianne Péron-Doise. Witnessing a hardening of the dialogue between China and the United States, North Korea “thinks that it can benefit from an impunity more or less offered by Russia and China”, two members of the ON safety councilU who could then vote against the sanctions, recalls the researcher associated with Iris. Especially since all the sanctions adopted for years have not prevented North Korea from continuing its nuclear development as well as provocations against the West.

Opposite, in addition to the sanctions, the United States, Japan and South Korea put the package on the military pressure with common exercises with some increasingly sophisticated equipment. Another deterrence technique to make Pyongyang understand that in the event of a red line being crossed, “there will be a fairly firm response”, notes Marianne Péron-Doise.

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