The fate of a U.N. panel launched 15 years ago to monitor the implementation of sanctions against North Korea appears increasingly in question as Russia has voted against its continuation for the first time as part of recent efforts to favor Pyongyang in closely-watched diplomatic matters.

Last month, Russia vetoed a resolution of the U.N. Security Council that would have reauthorized the auxiliary panel to check possible evasions of the punitive measures against Pyongyang under a council committee. The resolution was supported by 13 of the 15 council members, with China abstaining.

Established in 2009 in the wake of a nuclear test by Pyongyang, the panel had its mandate renewed each year with the main U.N. security body's unanimous approval. Even after its invasion of Ukraine began in 2022, Russia, a veto-wielding permanent member, had voted twice in the council to maintain the sanctions watchdog.

For the March resolution, however, submitted ahead of the panel's April 30 expiration, Moscow sought to tie the yearly renewal to a review of all current sanctions, an idea that would allow any permanent member to block the council's existing punitive measures against Pyongyang from continuing.

Russian ambassador to the United Nations Vassily Nebenzia (front R) speaks at a U.N. Security Council meeting at the U.N. headquarters in New York on March 28, 2024. (Kyodo)

"The most likely culprit is the arms deal with North Korea" that Russia is believed to have struck in violation of the sanctions, said Jeffrey Lewis, a U.S. expert on nuclear nonproliferation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in September in Vladivostok, following a visit by Defense Minister to North Korea to meet with Kim two months earlier.

Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told Kyodo News that he believes the two countries made an arms agreement during the period.

He had observed through satellite imagery that there were "hundreds of shipping containers consistently visible" at North Korea's border city of Rajin, which he evaluates as the location of its clandestine arms exports to Russia.

"It's hard to put a specific number on it, but it is a very significant trade," Lewis said, noting that North Korea is an inexpensive producer of munitions compatible with Russian military systems.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (2nd from L, front row) speaks with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (3rd from L, front row) in Vladivostok, Russia, on Sept. 16, 2023. (KCNA/Kyodo)

The United States and its allies have criticized Russia for helping Pyongyang evade sanctions by purchasing military equipment and munitions, including ballistic missiles, to use in its invasion of Ukraine, an accusation Moscow has denied.

"Pyongyang is denied everything," Russian ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said at a U.N. General Assembly debate earlier this month, defending its veto of the council resolution to renew the panel of experts.

"All the words of Western countries about their interest in dialogue on sanctions assessment are empty rhetoric," Nebenzia said.

Condemning what he called "draconian restrictions" against Pyongyang, Nebenzia said Russia would propose a resolution to extend the panel for one year with a requirement for the Security Council to review sanctions against the country.

The most recent report released by the panel, made public in March, included an investigation of 58 suspected cyberattacks by North Korea against cryptocurrency-related companies between 2017 and 2023, valued at around $3 billion.

Aaron Arnold, who served as a U.S. finance expert on the panel from 2019 to 2021, called Russia's veto "unfortunate" and said its decision "flies in the face" of a years-long consensus around keeping the panel.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (front L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (front R) share a laugh as they meet at the Vostochny Cosmodrome space launch center in the Russian Far East on Sept. 13, 2023. (KCNA/Kyodo)

"I think this is very much an attempt to shade and obfuscate Russia's just blatant violations of North Korea sanctions," said Arnold, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute of Britain.

Because the panel's reports required unanimous agreement from the experts, Arnold said, they had earned substantial global trust and demonstrated how the world agreed that North Korea has been evading sanctions.

The panel is made up of five experts from the permanent members of the Security Council alongside one each from Japan and South Korea, with a rotating eighth expert from any other U.N. member country.

"Without the panel, the United Nations would lose an entity that functions as 'eyes' to monitor the implementation of the sanctions from neutral viewpoints and makes the situations public," said Maiko Takeuchi, another former member of the panel, adding, "The number of sanction violations by North Korea would increase."

Meeting in Washington on April 10, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and U.S. President Joe Biden called on countries to "fully implement all relevant UNSC resolutions" on North Korea, "especially in light of Russia's recent veto," in a joint statement.

Related coverage:

North Korea fires ballistic missile into waters outside Japan's EEZ

North Korea says it conducted cruise missile "super-large warhead" test

Kin of Japanese abducted by North Korea ask U.S. envoy for assistance