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News / Nation & World

Russia blocks UN expert panel on North Korea nuclear program

By Augusta Saraiva and Jon Herskovitz, Bloomberg News
Published: March 29, 2024, 8:15am

Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution to extend a panel of experts that has reported on North Korea’s development of its nuclear arsenal for 15 years, underscoring the increasingly close ties between Moscow and Pyongyang.

Reports by the panel of experts inform decisions on international sanctions established by the Security Council in a series of resolutions aimed at barring North Korea from developing into a nuclear-armed state.

North Korea has repeatedly defied Security Council resolutions and continues to develop nuclear warheads and missiles that would carry them.

Thirteen members of the Security Council voted in favor of the proposed extension, which was introduced by the U.S. China abstained, while Russia — which wields veto power — blocked its adoption.

The move to bar a one-year extension of the panel, which will expire on April 30, comes at a time when the relationship between Russia and North Korea has reached new heights.

The U.S. and its close allies in Asia — Japan and South Korea — accuse North Korean leader Kim Jong Un of providing ammunition to help Russia with its assault on Ukraine in exchange for aid.

“Moscow has undermined the prospect of the peaceful, diplomatic resolution of one of the world’s most dangerous nuclear proliferation issues,” Robert Wood, the alternate U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said after the vote. John Kirby, spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, called Russia’s vote a “reckless action” that “further undermines critical sanctions” in response to North Korea’s nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches.

Japan and South Korea said the veto by Russia was regrettable.

But Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya said that by casting a negative vote, Moscow is standing up against the “increasingly brazen invocation” of a nuclear threat by Washington and its allies against Pyongyang.

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“Such a dangerous turn of events in the region affects the fundamental interests of the Russian Federation in the area of national security,” Nebenzya said, contending that the work of the panel of experts is “increasingly being reduced to playing into the hands of Western approaches.”

Even before the move at the U.N., Russia and North Korea let the world know they were moving even closer with Moscow dispatching its spy chief Sergey Naryshkin for a rare visit to Pyongyang this week and putting the news out on official media in both countries.

This came after the U.K.-based Royal United Services Institute security think tank used dozens of commercial satellite images to flag at least five North Korean vessels it said loaded oil this month at Vostochny Port in Russia’s Far East. If full, the vessels could carry approximately 125,000 barrels, which is a quarter of the U.N. oil cap, it said.

“The fact that U.N.-designated North Korean vessels are berthed at a Russian oil terminal is in itself a violation of sanctions that Russia agreed to put in place,” said Ino Terzi, a research analyst at RUSI.

South Korea’s defense minister Shin Wonsik said this month that North Korea has sent some 7,000 shipping containers that could hold as much as 3 million rounds of 152 mm artillery shells since Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in September.

Russia in return is providing North Korea with food, raw materials and parts used in weapons manufacturing, he said. If the arms transfers grow, Russia will likely send more military technology to Kim, increasing Pyongyang’s threat to the region, he added.

Russia and North Korea have denied the arms transfers accusations despite satellite photos released by research groups and the U.S. government that they say show the flow of weapons from North Korea to Russia and then to munitions dumps near the border with Ukraine.

Despite Moscow’s close ties with Pyongyang, the veto marks a shift in policy at the Security Council, as this is the first time Russia flatly opposed the panel’s mandate in the 15 years since it was established.

“This veto does not demonstrate concern for the North Korean people or the efficacy of sanctions. It is about Russia gaining the freedom to evade and breach sanctions in pursuit of weapons to be used against Ukraine,” Barbara Woodward, the U.K. ambassador to the U.N., said after the vote. “This panel, through its work to expose sanctions non-compliance, was an inconvenience for Russia.”