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UN imposes tougher sanctions on North Korea. Will they work?

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Seth Wenig/AP

(Read caption) South Korean ambassador to the United Nations Oh Joon, left, United States ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, right, and Japanese ambassador to the U.N. Motohide Yoshikawa speak to reporters after a Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters, Wednesday. The U.N. Security Council voted Wednesday on a resolution that would impose the toughest sanctions on North Korea in two decades.

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In response to a recent nuclear test and rocket launch that is widely thought to have violated UN resolutions on North Korea’s military activities, the UN Security Council unanimously approved additional sanctions – the toughest for North Korea in more than 20 years.

The new UN resolution expands existing sanctions, and aims to cripple parts of the North Korean economy that fuel its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

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For instance, member nations will now be mandated to inspect all cargo going to and from North Korea. Previously, countries had to inspect such shipments only if they had reasonable grounds to believe they contained illicit goods. Further, it bans the sale of valuable minerals by Pyongyang and prohibits the sale or supply of jet fuel to the nation.

"Today, the international community, speaking with one voice, has sent Pyongyang a simple message: North Korea must abandon these dangerous programs and choose a better path for its people," President Obama said in a statement.

"Today's adoption should be a new starting point and a paving stone for political settlement of the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula," said Liu Jieyi, China's ambassador to the UN, calling for a return to dialogue.

Throughout months of bilateral negotiations, China has been reluctant to embrace tougher measures against Pyongyang, largely due to its close ties with the isolated nation. The relationship is what has allowed North Korea to retains links and access to the international economy, and get the funds it needs to develop its nuclear, missile, and space programs, says Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution think tank, according to The Washington Post.

Yet doubts still remain as to whether China will enforce the new sanctions, despite its agreement to the resolution. China's leaders value stability above all, the Monitor’s Robert Marquand writes, suggesting that cutting trade to North Korea could “fragment and destroy the North, fomenting revolution and chaos. Such instability could bring floods of refugees, a military backlash, or a crisis that would force the intervention of South Korea and thus the US and Japan. It’s a nightmare scenario for China.”

Chinese leaders have condemned North Korea's nuclear program in the UN Security council, but condemning the program and actually enforcing the sanctions aren’t the same thing.

Beijing’s position throughout the negotiation with the US and security council has been that, “the purpose of sanctions should be to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table and not solely to punish it." Beijing also expressed concern about possible harm done to the lives of ordinary North Koreans, the International Business Times reports.

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“Sanctions are not an end to themselves and the Security Council cannot fundamentally resolve the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula,” Mr. Liu said.

Analysts are also skeptical because previous sanctions were hampered due the lack of a vigorous enforcement by member states and the North’s ingenious methods of circumventing them. The Council does not punish countries that aid North Korea’s illicit trade or that fail to put sanctions in effect, The New York Times reports.

“Sanctions and pressure will never work on the DPRK, which has been exposed to all kinds of sanctions and blockade for decades,” North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency wrote in an editorial in February, according to The Washington Post. “Despite the enemies’ ever-increasing threats and sanctions, the foundation of the Juche self-supporting economy of the DPRK has been further consolidated and its nuclear deterrence for defending the sovereignty has also been bolstered on a daily basis.”

There hasn’t been any official comment from Pyongyang yet. But in his visit to the factory that has been connected to Pyongyang's missile production, prior to the UN sanctions, the country's supreme leader, Kim Jong-un said that “it is the Korean Workers' Party's objective to make the factory into a global state-of-the-art manufacturing base.”