Hardly anyone saw this coming, but three days after the UN Security Council voted overwhelmingly to impose stricter sanctions on North Korea, the Philippines became the first member of the international community to enforce those sanctions—by impounding a North Korean cargo vessel newly docked in Subic Bay on Saturday.
The Jin Teng flies the Sierra Leone flag, is registered to a firm based in the British Virgin Islands and managed by a Chinese company. But its crew of 21 is exclusively North Korean and the ship itself is included in the list of 31 vessels owned by the Ocean Maritime Management Co., blacklisted by the United Nations.
The shipping company, which is widely believed to be headquartered in Pyongyang, was caught in July 2013 smuggling weapons from Cuba, including two MiG-21 jet fighters, under a cargo of sugar. The United Nations blacklisted the shipping line a year after. In the latest UN resolution, the shipping company’s vessels were deemed “economic resources controlled or operated by Ocean Maritime Management and therefore subject to the asset freeze.”
Was the Jin Teng smuggling weapons? No. A first inspection showed that the ship carried palm-kernel expeller, an animal feed. A second inspection did not find any weapons at all. But the responsibility of the Philippines under the UN resolution is clear.
“The world is concerned over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and, as a member of the UN, the Philippines has to do its part to enforce the sanctions,” Undersecretary Manuel L. Quezon III said. “An asset freeze basically means to impound the [ship] and that it should not be allowed to leave port. It also means that the crew must eventually be deported,” he added.
The new set of sanctions is sweeping in scope; more importantly, they were introduced jointly by the United States and China, North Korea’s principal ally, and supported almost unanimously by UN members, including all five permanent members of the Security Council. The sanctions aim to punish North Korea for arranging a nuclear test in January and for testing a ballistic missile system in February.
For the first time, the sanctions don’t require a reasonable suspicion that a vessel is carrying contraband, before it can be inspected; all North Korean aircraft and ships are now subject to inspection. But because the company was proven, in the words of a UN committee, to have “played a key role in arranging the shipment of the concealed cargo of arms,” Ocean Maritime Management’s 31 vessels are banned from docking at international ports.
What are the sanctions for? They are meant to discourage Pyongyang from continuing to fund its nuclear weapons development program, and to encourage the current and mercurial dictator, Kim Jong-un, to recommit to the negotiation process.
Do the sanctions work? Diplomats from several countries who have dealt with them all attest to the difficulty of negotiating with the North Koreans—the norms, by which even great rivals like the United States and China can at least agree to disagree, have proven elusive in these negotiations.
At the same time, it has become clear from an increasing number of sources, not least South Korean government agencies and media organizations which have long kept meticulous track of events in North Korea, that the dire situation of ordinary North Koreans has become worse. They are among the most impoverished in the world, and even the seizure of animal feeds from the Jin Teng must give us pause.
It is worth reminding ourselves, then, why the new, tougher sanctions are necessary and why the Philippines had to make that first strike: A rogue nation like North Korea should not possess nuclear weapons—not only because possession of such weapons and the perfection of a delivery system will destabilize a great part of the Pacific zone, but also because its nuclear weapons development program is one of the causes of its people’s impoverishment.
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