On March 20, 2023, the United States, China, and Russia engaged in a heated debate during a United Nations Security Council meeting about who was responsible for North Korea’s numerous ballistic missile launches and development of a nuclear weapons program.
The council met to discuss North Korea’s recent claim of launching its largest Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile on Thursday.
Since 2006, North Korea has faced U.N. sanctions due to its missile and nuclear programs.
During the meeting, a senior U.N. official stated that U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “remains deeply concerned over the divisions that have prevented the international community from acting on this matter.”
The council has been divided for several years on how to approach the issue of North Korea.
China is facing criticism for its continued advocacy of North Korea despite the country’s recent missile provocations.
In 2022, North Korea launched over 40 short-range ballistic missiles, intermediate-range ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and more, demonstrating its ability to strike South Korea and the mainland United States.
The provocations peaked when North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) eight times, breaking a moratorium declaration for the first time in four years.
The country continued to launch missiles before and after major events, including South Korea’s mourning period for the Itaewon accident, the Beijing Winter Olympics, and China’s 20th Party Congress.
This year, North Korea resumed provocations by launching a short-range ballistic missile towards the East Sea on New Year’s Day and firing an ICBM on February 18th. The country is also expanding pressure on South Korea and the US by announcing plans to use the Pacific as a shooting range in the future.
Despite North Korea’s actions, China has continued to advocate for the country, citing its value as a buffer zone amid intensifying competition with the US. China has maintained its special relationship with North Korea by sending diplomatic letters to Kim Jong Un and exchanging congratulatory messages on special occasions.
China has also played a guardian role by covering up North Korea’s provocations at the UN Security Council. Last year, North Korea conducted about 40 missile provocations, but China vetoed a new resolution to respond to North Korea’s ICBM launches in May 2022. China also opposed the Chairman’s statement, which carried less intensity against North Korea’s ICBM launches in November 2022 and February 2023.
China has mentioned the need for a change in South Korea and the US attitude towards North Korea, insisting on suspending South Korea-US military drills and relaxing sanctions against North Korea. However, this has raised concerns about stimulating North Korea to conduct additional nuclear tests.
China has also played the role of a “respirator” under sanctions against North Korea and during the COVID-19 lockdown. China maintains its status as North Korea’s largest trading partner and strategic donor by re-running cargo trains and condoning a significant portion of the “loophole in sanctions against North Korea.”
China was the only country to provide quarantine supplies to North Korea right after the COVID-19 breakout and provided 100,000 tons of rice to help overcome food shortages.
Despite these efforts, China and Russia faced criticism for vetoing a UN Security Council sanctions resolution on North Korea in May 2022. The resolution called for reducing the ceiling on crude oil and refined oil imports and banning the launch of nuclear-mounted vehicles such as cruise missiles.
China and Russia vetoed the resolution, citing concerns about negative effects and creating tensions. This was the first time a permanent member of the Security Council vetoed a resolution to sanction against North Korea.
China and Russia have submitted a resolution to the Security Council on easing sanctions on North Korea, arguing for enhancing mutual trust and creating an atmosphere for resuming dialogue.
However, the UN Security Council’s panel of experts on North Korea sanctions has noted a loophole in China’s sanctions on North Korea regarding the export of refined oil. China’s annual export of refined oil to North Korea is estimated to be well above the allowed level of 500,000 barrels.
As North Korea continues to escalate its missile provocations, China’s advocacy for the country has raised concerns about its intentions and the stability of the region. The international community is urging China to reconsider its stance and take a stronger stance against North Korea’s actions.