The coordinator of a United Nations panel on North Korea sanctions advised caution Wednesday in any consideration of easing the measures, reiterating the panel's finding that "no progress" has been seen toward denuclearizing the country on a permanent and verified basis.
"What our report shows is that there has been no progress toward verified denuclearization," said Hugh Griffiths, head of the eight-member panel of experts, in an interview with Kyodo News at U.N. headquarters.
While leader Kim Jong Un "rationally pivoted" to international dialogue after the most recent Security Council sanctions in December 2017, refraining from nuclear and ballistic missile tests, Pyongyang continues to use "sophisticated sanctions-evasion techniques" involving "loosely associated" networks spread out over many countries in efforts to fund its banned weapons programs, Griffiths said.
At the second summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump last month in Hanoi, the two leaders failed to bridge the gap between Washington's insistence on full-fledged denuclearization and Pyongyang's demand for sanctions relief.
Griffiths viewed the North Korean emphasis on lifting sanctions as a sign the measures have gotten the leadership's attention and indicated there was no basis for easing the provisions, which target the North's generating of foreign currency for weapons development rather than its economy as a whole or the delivery of humanitarian aid.
"Nobody, including myself, wants to be part of a sanctions regime which causes terrible hardship, hunger and suffering," Griffiths said. "But we aren't seeing that."
"These sanctions that (North Korea) wanted lifted are not economic sanctions -- they are sanctions on North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs, which remain intact as the panel has found."
The panel, comprised of experts from the five permanent members of the Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- as well as from Japan, South Korea and South Africa, published its yearly report on Tuesday.
Members of the panel, who have expertise in fields ranging from nuclear nonproliferation to export trade control, analyze findings brought forward during the previous year.
Its report came out a day after the U.N. special rapporteur on North Korea called for a diplomatic track whereby Pyongyang could earn sanctions relief for improving its human rights record and implementing reforms that would aid the population.
According to U.N. agencies operating in the country, as much as 41 percent of North Korea's population suffers from food insecurity and lacks access to health and sanitation services.
As a former humanitarian aid worker in the Balkans, Griffiths has firsthand experience of the urgency of relief work, but noted that "we should be very careful with the discourse of humanitarian aid in North Korea."
"The fact of the matter remains that North Korea is developing a nuclear and ballistic missile program at the expense of the country's most vulnerable groups, namely women with babies and small children," he said.
The U.N. expert, who is slated to move on from his leadership role next month after five years, explained that the Security Council has latitude to grant exemptions of various kinds as a way to adjust the impacts of the sanctions.
"We just have to be very, very careful with the exemptions, though, particularly with regard to the travel of North Korean diplomats," he said.
"I've been monitoring this for years and quite a number of these diplomats are procuring nuclear and ballistic missile technologies or selling arms or ballistic missiles to Africa or the Middle East."
"(Wherever) there are North Korean embassies and diplomats, they are obliged to undertake prohibited activities," he added. "So it all depends on how much they are monitored by their host countries."
North Korea has been subjected to increasingly tight sanctions since 2006 in response to missile and nuclear tests. The latest batch of sanctions, adopted after Pyongyang carried out its sixth and most powerful nuclear explosion in September 2017, capped imports of crude oil and refined petroleum product.
The latest panel of experts report described illicit ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products and coal as well as cyberattacks by which Pyongyang allegedly reaped hundreds of millions of dollars.