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U.S. Holds Line On North Korea Sanctions, As U.N. Details How The Country Evades Them


The Trump administration says it is making it easier for humanitarian aid to get to North Korea during this global pandemic. But U.S. officials are in no mood to ease sanctions. A U.N. report is due out soon that will detail the gaps in enforcement of sanctions, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The U.N. panel of experts has studied the ways North Korea gets around sanctions and continues to build up its ballistic missile and nuclear programs. The latest report describes how North Korea has been exporting coal and sand, mostly to China. A U.N. Security Council diplomat raises particular concern that, according to the report, North Korea has some personnel in Iran with weapons expertise. China, the same diplomat argues, is turning a blind eye. Frank Aum of the U.S. Institute of Peace says North Korea has become good at this.

FRANK AUM: The reports from the U.N. panel of experts have concluded consistently that sanctions haven't been effective against North Korea, and this is because North Korea has developed very sophisticated evasion techniques.

KELEMEN: Aum hosted a conference call this week where experts debated whether it's time to ease sanctions on North Korea. Some say this is a moral issue, while others point out that Pyongyang hasn't even responded to Trump's offer of aid. David Maxwell of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies says the onus is on Kim Jong Un.

DAVID MAXWELL: He could change his behavior. He could accept humanitarian assistance. He could stop his nuclear program, his missile program, his illicit activities around the world.

KELEMEN: The sanctions are meant to pressure North Korea back to the negotiating table. Frank Aum isn't holding his breath.

AUM: My sense is that North Korea doesn't feel like Washington will become any more flexible over the next several months. So likely, North Korea will wait until after the U.S. presidential elections in November before reassessing the situation.

KELEMEN: The coronavirus pandemic has given North Korea an excuse to further isolate itself and buy time, says Jean Lee of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She says Kim Jong Un is using that time to build up leverage for future talks.

JEAN LEE: He is looking to expand his arsenal without directly confronting Trump. So we can expect continued tests that refine and improve technical aspects of North Korea's nuclear program.

KELEMEN: In the meantime, the Trump administration continues to try to build up pressure. This week, it offered countries help to counter ongoing cyberthreats from North Korea. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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