North Korea is stepping up its threats against the United States in the wake of the United Nations Security Council’s unanimous passage last Saturday of a toughly worded U.S.-drafted sanctions resolution. In response to North Korea’s two intercontinental ballistic missile tests last month, the new UN resolution bans North Korea’s exports of coal, iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore and seafood. The effect would be to potentially cut North Korea’s $3 billion annual export revenue by a third. Member states are also prohibited from admitting more North Korean laborers into their countries. These workers send remittances back to North Korea, replenishing the regime’s hard currency reserves. 

“North Korea’s irresponsible and careless acts have just proved to be quite costly to the regime,” said U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley following the adoption of the resolution. “This resolution is the single largest economic sanctions package ever leveled against the North Korean regime. The price the North Korean leadership will pay for its continued nuclear and missile development will be the loss of one-third of its exports and hard currency. This is the most stringent set of sanctions on any country in a generation.”

At the same time, however, Ambassador Haley noted that much more needs to be done to make any real difference in North Korea’s calculations. “We must work together to fully implement the sanctions we imposed today and those imposed in past resolutions,” she said. “The step we take together today is an important one. But we should not fool ourselves into thinking we have solved the problem. Not even close.”

One item conspicuously missing from the list of sanctioned items is the import of oil into North Korea, which is vital to fueling North Korea’s war machine. Most of the oil North Korea has received comes from China, with some also coming from Russia. If China were to decide to decrease its oil shipments to North Korea, Russia is poised to step into the breach. So is Iran.

While China and Russia called for resumption of negotiations in their own respective remarks to the Security Council, the Trump administration laid down its pre-condition for any resumption of talks with North Korea in which the United States would agree to participate. North Korea has to take concrete, confidence-building actions first. Stop testing missiles for an "extended period," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said. "We'll know it when we see it. This is not a 'give me 30 days and we are ready to talk.' It's not quite that simple. So it is all about how we see their attitude towards approaching a dialogue with us."

The North Korean regime countered that its nuclear weapons program was not subject to negotiations. It ridiculed the Security Council for succumbing to a “gangster-like logic indicating that the rest of the world should either become U.S. colonies serving its interests or fall victim to its aggression.” North Korea defiantly vowed “thousands-fold” revenge" for what North Korea characterized as a "heinous U.S. plot to isolate and stifle" it via the new UN sanctions. In a show of force, the regime is reported to have loaded anti-ship cruise missiles onto a patrol boat in the eastern part of the country.

The unanimous passage of the latest Security Council resolution, including with support from North Korea’s allies Russia and China, has indeed served to further isolate the North Korean regime. North Korea can no longer rely on any of the permanent members of the Security Council for political cover. 

Ambassador Haley made a point in particular “to personally thank the Chinese delegation for the important contributions they made to this resolution.” It is highly likely, in order to help seal the deal on the resolution with China, North Korea's most significant trading partner, that the Trump administration put off initiating a trade action against China over alleged Chinese violations of U.S. intellectual property rights. President Trump had been planning to announce the action against China last Friday, but reportedly held off as progress was being made on reaching agreement with China on the resolution.  

Whether China will back up its support for the sanctions with unambiguous action to fully implement them remains to be seen. China has been sending mixed signals. It has continued to press the U.S. and South Korea to cease their joint military exercises, the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea and provocative rhetoric. At the same time, China's foreign minister Wang Yi warned North Korea not to "violate the UN decision or provoke the international community’s goodwill by conducting missile launches or nuclear tests.” 

The elephant in the room, whenever the UN Security Council deliberates about North Korea and passes its sanctions resolutions, is Iran. Even if China and Russia were to fully implement all sanctions and other restrictions the Security Council has imposed on North Korea, Iran’s reported collaboration with North Korea on the development of ballistic missile and related nuclear weapons technologies may undermine the effectiveness of any sanctions against North Korea. If Iran purchases such technologies from North Korea with hard currency from the massive amount of monies unfrozen or transferred to Iran as a result of Barack Obama’s disastrous Iran nuclear deal known as the JCPOA, North Korea will see its hard currency reserves rise as a result. It is also possible that Iran has been using North Korean facilities to outsource the development of nuclear warheads and triggering devices. 

“The longtime relationship has been one in which oil-rich Iran provides the lucre, while cash-famished North Korea serves as an illicit weapons laboratory and backshop for Tehran and its clients, including terrorist outfits such as Hezbollah,” wrote foreign affairs expert Claudia Rosett. 

The chairman of the Supreme Assembly of North Korea is presently visiting Iran. He is reported to be traveling with North Korean economic and military officials. North Korea also has just opened a new embassy in Tehran, which North Korea’s state-run KCNA news agency said was "built to boost exchanges, contacts and cooperation between the two countries for world peace and security and international justice." Those are code words for military collaboration against their common enemy, the United States.

There is one possible silver lining in all of this. If Iran has been working with North Korea to engage in certain activities prohibited by the JCPOA, the Trump administration would have solid grounds to declare Iran to be in violation of the JCPOA. Such prohibited activities may include Iran’s involvement in R&D “that could contribute to the development of a nuclear explosive device,” or Iran’s purchase of certain nuclear equipment, material and technologies from North Korea outside of the “procurement channel” established by the JCPOA for approval of such purchases.

Negotiations with North Korea going back to the Clinton administration have led us to the point where North Korea is now on the verge of being able to carry out its threats to launch a nuclear attack on the U.S. mainland. Wendy Sherman was the Clinton administration's policy coordinator for North Korea and a principal negotiator of the failed 1994 Agreed Framework under which North Korea initially agreed to freeze and dismantle its nuclear weapons program. Despite its complete unraveling, she has continued to defend that deal, which no doubt prepared her to lead the negotiations on behalf of the United States with Iran that culminated in the deeply flawed JCPOA. We are being played by Iran, just as we were played by North Korea. It is time to end the repeat performance brought to us once again by Wendy Sherman, this time working for the Obama administration. Any evidence of Iran’s illicit collaboration with North Korea should be used as grounds to exit the JCPOA, before we end up at the same place with Iran as we now find ourselves with North Korea.