The Fallout of Russia’s Veto and Putin’s North Korea Visit 

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Flashpoints | Security | East Asia

The Fallout of Russia’s Veto and Putin’s North Korea Visit 

The impact of the fall of the UN Panel of Experts and how Australia should respond to Russia’s increasing closeness to North Korea.

The Fallout of Russia’s Veto and Putin’s North Korea Visit 

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un exchange documents during a ceremony for their new partnership in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Wednesday, June 19, 2024.

Credit: Kristina Kormilitsyna, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File

The recent visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to North Korea was the highest profile reflection to date of the deepening relationship between the two rogue states. However, it is better understood as the culmination of a growing willingness in Moscow to provide material and diplomatic support to an isolated and dangerous actor, who returns the favor by supplying large quantities of munitions, albeit of dubious quality

Less flashy but arguably more consequential was Russia’s decision to veto the extension of the mandate for the North Korea U.N. Panel of Experts in March 2024, ensuring the demise of the independent body charged with reporting to the Security Council on violations of the long-term sanctions against the North Korean regime. 

The Road to the Veto

Russia’s decision to veto the panel was not taken in a vacuum and must be understood in the broader context of prior systematic efforts by Russia – and China – to de-legitimize and undermine the Panel of Experts process, as well as to downplay resultant criticism of violations, diminishing the sanctions’ intended impact. 

This strategy of chipping away at the sanctions from within the Panel of Experts has been a key element of their broader approach. This includes Chinese and Russian-appointed expert members challenging the panel’s findings, and delaying or even blocking the publication of its reports. Such reports contained detailed accounts of sanctions violations, including illicit trade and financial transactions. While limiting criticism of Chinese and Russian firms for breaching sanctions, these actions also prevented the timely dissemination of information that could lead to further sanctions or increased international pressure on North Korea. Russia and China have also consistently pushed for the dilution of proposed sanctions measures, often justifying their stance by citing humanitarian concerns or the need for dialogue with North Korea. While these arguments may have some merit, they also serve the strategic purpose of weakening the sanctions, making them easier for North Korea to circumvent.

The relationship between Russia and North Korea, and the threat it poses to international stability, deepened significantly in 2024, driven by Russia’s need for North Korean munitions to power its illegal war in Ukraine. 

In March, Russia vetoed the extension of funding for the North Korea U.N. Panel of Experts, an escalatory step beyond the traditional Russian and Chinese grumbling and complaints that accompanied prior extensions. This was followed in early June by a visit to North Korea by Putin. Coming ten months after their previous meeting in Russia, this was the first visit by a major world leader since the outbreak of COVID-19. The evolution of the Russia-North Korea relationship was underscored by the announcement of a pledge of mutual military assistance and economic support, widely interpreted as a reward for the delivery of thousands of munitions over the first few months of 2024. These announcements, and the visit itself, highlighted concerns that the North Koreans are already taking advantage of the demise of the international monitor.

Geostrategic Impacts of the Cessation of the Panel of Experts

The demise of the U.N. Panel of Experts leaves the North Korean sanctions regime without a technocratic international monitor, devolving future enforcement and monitoring to the murkier world of individual state actions, which is far easier for malicious actors to discredit and circumvent. North Korea could exploit the absence of rigorous monitoring to engage in increased sanctions evasion, including smuggling, illegal financial transactions, and arms trading. This would not only provide North Korea with economic and military benefits but also potentially accelerate its nuclear and missile programs, thereby strengthening its geopolitical position. While non-government organizations, particularly academic think tanks, have stepped into the gap, they lack the legitimacy and authority of a multinational panel under the U.N.’s auspices.

The weakening of sanctions enforcement has broader implications, eroding the credibility and effectiveness of international sanctions as a tool and of the U.N. as an effective actor. The inability of the U.S. and U.K. as permanent Security Council members – and of Japan and South Korea, who were coincidently serving as non-permanent members — to prevent this veto, undercuts the perceived diplomatic leverage of countries seeking to pressure North Korea through sanctions. This crisis of credibility was further exacerbated by concurrent and flagrant breaches, including China’s aggressive behavior toward its neighbors over territorial claims, Russia’s continued illegal war in Ukraine, and Iran’s launch of a major, albeit foiled, missile and drone attack on Israel. 

These breaches, and the inability of the existing international rules-based order to restrain great powers, are presenting a rising security dilemma to small and middle powers in the Asia Pacific, who have previously preferred to rely on international institutions, norms and forums to protect their interests. Neighboring states are thus feeling increasingly compelled to enhance their own military capabilities or seek alternative security arrangements, further escalating instability in the region. Such instability would have significant second-order impacts on the economic and human security of the wider region, even if it does not lead to an emboldened regime seeking conflict in East Asia, as resources expended on military buildup are then not available for governments that are also attempting to encourage economic growth and post-pandemic recovery. 

In this context, an emboldened North Korea, sheltered in the absence of a U.N. monitor, is likely to increase its coercive activities, from missile and nuclear tests to offensive cyber operations and espionage, and arms proliferation activities, including trading in nuclear and missile technologies with other problematic actors, chiefly Russia. This would impose further social and humanitarian costs on the North Korean people as the regime prioritizes technology and oil from its partnership with Russia, and the munitions production required to sustain that relationship.

Alternative Measures for Securing North Korean Sanctions

The cessation of the U.N. Panel of Experts on North Korean sanctions has prompted discussions about alternative mechanisms. One proposed solution is forming an ad hoc multinational coalition to independently monitor and enforce sanctions bypassing the need for U.N. consensus. This coalition could act more swiftly and adaptively, pooling resources and intelligence for more effective enforcement. But its legitimacy might be questioned, and coordination among diverse countries could be complex.

Another alternative is establishing regional enforcement mechanisms through organizations like ASEAN or the East Asia Summit. These organizations could leverage local knowledge and relationships for effective monitoring. However, regional mechanisms may lack the global reach and consistent commitment needed to address all aspects of North Korea’s sanctions evasion. Independent monitoring by NGOs and think tanks is another potential solution, offering unbiased assessments and increasing public awareness. However, these organizations lack the authority to enforce sanctions and may face funding and cooperation challenges. Enhanced national sanctions regimes represent another approach, where countries strengthen their sanctions and enforcement mechanisms, potentially coordinating with like-minded nations. While this can lead to more tailored and effective enforcement, it may result in fragmented efforts and strain diplomatic relations with opposing countries.

What Role Can Australia Play in Supporting the Sanctions Regime Moving Forward?

As a quintessential middle power, Australia has the capacity to support efforts to minimize the harm caused by this de-funding by leveraging our diplomatic, economic, and intelligence resources in partnership with both our traditional allies and our regional neighbors. 

For example, Australia could support a regional replacement — through the ASEAN Security Forum, the EAS, or through direct collaboration with like-minded nations (such as the Quad). At a minimum, Australia should be lobbying at the U.N. General Assembly for a restoration of an independent monitoring body. Australia should also encourage our peers by example, setting a high standard for Australian companies to avoid any trade with North Korean entities, and enforcing the existing sanctions regime on actors, criminals, and transactions within its own realm of influence. Australia could also contribute to joint exercises and training activities with regional partner militaries to enforce the sanctions imposed by individual states and restore a unified deterrent against North Korean aggression. Finally, Australia could leverage our existing intelligence-sharing partnerships to support open-source monitoring, and encourage our Five Eyes partners to do the same, improving our capacity to target illicit financial flows, identify smuggling routes, and uncover networks involved in sanctions evasion.

A critical aspect of any effort to limit the harms stemming from Russia’s veto, and increasingly close partnership with North Korea, is diplomatic legitimacy. Without U.N. backing, sanctions enforcement may be seen as politically motivated. Middle powers like Australia can help maintain legitimacy by adhering to international norms, promoting transparency, implementing sanctions, and ensuring that their actions are consistent with broader humanitarian principles.


Russia’s veto of the U.N. Panel of Experts on North Korean sanctions represents a significant setback for international efforts to monitor and enforce sanctions against a regime that continues to pose a serious threat to global security. The deepening relationship between Russia and North Korea, marked by material and diplomatic support, exacerbates the risk and alternative measures for sanctions monitoring must be considered. Multinational coalitions, regional frameworks, and independent monitoring by NGOs and think tanks offer viable but not perfect avenues. 

Australia is well placed to support whatever form the international community chooses to replace the U.N. Panel of Experts, and we should prioritize doing so. Not just as a reflection of our longstanding commitment to the international rules-based order, or our historical and economic ties to the Republic of Korea – but also because doing so would be in Australia’s own geopolitical self-interest, as we prepare for a period of deteriorating international institutions and increased competition between our main security ally and our major trade partner. Australia, in collaboration with its allies and regional partners, must prioritize efforts to restore a unified and effective deterrent against North Korean aggression, thereby contributing to regional stability and global security.