Following the laughter that greeted US President Donald Trump’s address to the United Nations General Assembly, there was another fraught reception for American diplomacy at the UN yesterday, when Beijing and Moscow openly disagreed with Washington over sanctions on North Korea.

In a UN Security Council meeting chaired by Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State called for continued enforcement of sanctions against North Korea – currently, the most heavily sanctioned nation on earth – even as South Korea and the US engage in active summitry with the nuclear-armed state.

But while Pompeo said UNSC members should “set an example” with sanctions, Russia and China argued that “positive developments” in North Korea should be rewarded with eased measures, Reuters reported from New York.

“Enforcement of Security Council sanctions must continue vigorously and without fail until we realize the fully, final, verified denuclearization,” Pompeo said, according to the agency.

China, Russia challenge US line

However, Chinese delegate Wang Yi said that UNSC resolutions include provisions for the modification of sanctions if North Korea comes into compliance, and “given the positive developments,” China believed the council “needs to consider invoking in due course this provision to encourage [North Korea] and other relevant parties to move denuclearization further ahead.”

Russia’s veteran Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov supported China. “Any negotiation is a two-way street,” he said. “Steps by [North Korea] towards gradual disarmament should be followed by the easing of sanctions.”

While China, North Korea and Russia have suggested a phased denuclearization, with incentives granted to Pyongyang at each step, Washington’s position is that the sanctions must remain in place until full denuclearization is achieved. That stems from the frequently expressed belief inside the Trump administration that “maximum pressure” is what forced North Korea to come out of its shell and engage the international community this year.

Beijing and Moscow cannot lift the UNSC sanctions without the agreement of Washington, which like other sitting members of the council, holds a veto. But while UNSC sanctions are binding upon member states, the UN lacks any actual mechanism to compel members to enforce them. This has been a source of frustration to the US, which has accused Russia of ignoring the sanctions, and has also suggested that China may be turning a blind eye to business across its border with North Korea.

Now, the difference of opinion between China and Russia and the US on the issue is in the open.

Next summit in Seoul

Meanwhile, there is an upbeat mood in Seoul toward Pyongyang, following a high-profile summit in the North Korean capital last week. The three-day summit was marked by remarkably positive optics in terms of the relationship between leaders of the two Koreas, and another summit is planned for December in the South Korean capital. That will be historic: No North Korean leader has ever visited Seoul before.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju, left, with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his wife Kim Jung-sook on the top of Mount Paektu on September 20 after their summit. Photo: AFP / Pyeongyang Press Corps
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju, left, with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his wife Kim Jung-sook on the top of Mount Paektu on September 20 after their summit. Photo: AFP / Pyeongyang Press Corps

As a result of the various cross-border good vibes that have been reverberating since the beginning of the year, there are rising hopes for imminent inter-Korean economic engagement in some political, business and media circles in South Korea.

However, Seoul has been careful to keep Washington fully appraised of all its moves, and Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, was in lock-step with her US ally at the UNSC meeting.

“We are committed to continuing to work with the international community to ensure that the council’s sanctions are faithfully implemented, even as we continue to engage North Korea to facilitate substantial progress towards complete denuclearization,” she said, according to Yonhap newswire.

Pompeo off to Pyongyang soon

Pompeo’s chairmanship of the UNSC meeting came one day after he met the North Korean Foreign Minister, Ri Yong-ho, in New York.

Pompeo will fly to Pyongyang next month for talks on a denuclearization process that North Korea and the US agreed to in general terms during their Singapore summit in June. However, that summit’s written agreement lacked details, commitments and timelines, and in the months since, while both North Korea and the US have made a number of unilateral moves, there has been no progress on a process that both sides agreed on.

Currently, North Korea is demanding a peace agreement to replace the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War, while the United States is demanding a full list of the North’s nuclear assets and facilities, to be followed by inspection, dismantlement and verification protocols. This apparent lack of common ground suggests that Pompeo’s Pyongyang trip will be challenging.

Even so, there are some positive signs.

In addition to kick-starting denuclearization, his mission is expected to include arranging a second summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. An informed source told foreign reporters in Seoul this week that the summit is also likely to take place in Asia.

Despite the lack of progress on denuclearization and a peace treaty, both leaders continue to praise each other, and Trump has stated that the channels of communication between the two capitals are busily occupied.