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Will North Korea sanctions 'bite?'

| Friday, March 8, 2013, 6:27 p.m.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) uses a pair of binoculars to look towards the South during his visit to the Jangjae Islet Defence Detachment and Mu Islet Hero Defence Detachment on the front, near the border with South Korea, southwest of Pyongyang March 7, 2013 in this picture released by the North's official KCNA news agency in Pyongyang March 8, 2013.

UNITED NATIONS — Fears remain that the U.N. sanctions adopted on Thursday on North Korea will have little impact on its defiant leaders.

U.N. envoy Susan Rice — who led the drafting of the Security Council resolution as well as the bilateral talks with China that produced it — said, “These sanctions will bite and bite hard.”

North Korea responded with an escalation of its bellicose rhetoric by repeating threats to cancel the armistice that ended the Korean War and taunting the United States with a nuclear strike.

Will the sanctions bite?

Only Beijing and Pyongyang have the answer. Some analysts question whether China, the North's ally and trading partner, really wants “full implementation” of the U.N. restrictions on trade. Without China's active support, the measures could be largely symbolic.

George Lopez, a professor at the University of Notre Dame and a former member of a U.N. expert panel that monitors compliance with the North Korean sanctions regime, said the measures could prove to be effective.

“This diversity of sanctions measures and other directives in the new resolution have the potential to take a considerable bite out of (North Korean) money movements and to constrain their access to specialized products critical to missile and centrifuge operations,” he said.

Similar to steps the Security Council approved in 2010 against Iran over its nuclear program, the council's latest resolution prohibits countries from engaging in any financial transactions with Pyongyang that could in any way be linked to its nukes.

It makes interdictions of suspicious North Korean cargo coming in and out of the country in violation of U.N. sanctions mandatory. Such raids on North Korean vessels were voluntary before Thursday.

Some diplomats and analysts say North Korea's effectively closed economy dulls the impact of sanctions.

And not everyone believes China is ready to get tough on North Korea, even though it clearly dislikes Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program and wants to avoid a new Korean war. As one senior U.N. Security Council diplomat put it recently, if China had to choose between a nuclear North Korea and no North Korea at all, it would choose the former.

Beijing wants to avoid a collapse of its impoverished neighbor. It fears a flood of economic refugees into China and a capitalist Korea controlled by Seoul.

Bruce Klingner, a retired CIA analyst at the Heritage Foundation, doubted China was prepared to take the steps needed to make North Korea suffer the way Tehran has.

“Despite excitement by China watchers that internal debate amongst pundits and media organizations indicate the new Chinese leadership will adopt a new, more stringent policy toward its pesky ally, Beijing again shows itself to be an obstruction at the U.N. Security Council,” he said.

“The new U.N. resolution is an incremental improvement, but it doesn't live up to Ambassador Rice's hype.”

Louis Charbonneau covers the United Nations for Reuters.

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