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Inside the push to stop Kim Jong Un's nuclear ambitions

U.N. approves tough sanctions on North Korea. But will China enforce them?

North Korea fired short-range missiles into the sea after the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved tough sanctions on the regime. The measures target Kim Jong Un's commercial trade activities and vast overseas financial operations.

For years, confronting a problem like North Korea has centered around security and denuclearization and human rights abuses. Now after the fourth nuclear test in January and a launched rocket in February, those issues are colliding with urgency as the international community — including China — makes it more difficult for regime leaders to make money and fund weapons and WMDs.

The U.N. resolution approved on Wednesday targets the export of coal, iron and iron ore that finance the North's nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The resolution also prohibits exports of gold, titanium ore and rare earth minerals — all key sources of income for the North's ruling elite.

"The bottom line: The sanction resolution is sweeping in scope," said Stephan Haggard, a North Korea watcher and professor at the University of California, San Diego.

Read MoreNorth Korea fires projectiles into sea

In a photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un supervises a meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party in Pyongyang, February 18, 2015.
KCNA | Reuters
In a photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un supervises a meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party in Pyongyang, February 18, 2015.

North Korea experts say the widening of sanctions across the board are on a new level.

"The common misnomer is to say that North Korea is already heavily sanctioned, so who cares if you sanction them some more," said Georgetown University's Victor Cha, a longtime North Korea watcher.

"But the reality is if you compare the sanctioning of North Korea to date with that against Iran, the sanctions on Iran were exponentially much more comprehensive," said Cha, senior advisor and Korea chair for the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. "That's the template to which both the international community and the U.S. government is moving now."

"Soldier-builders" and civilians walk in central Pyongyang, North Korea last October.
Damir Sagolj | Reuters
"Soldier-builders" and civilians walk in central Pyongyang, North Korea last October.

The U.N. resolution's passage is noteworthy given China's cooperation.

"With respect to all of the trade-related measures, China is the key actor given that it's share of the country's trade could reach as high as 90 percent following the closure of Kaesong if we include transshipment from third countries," Haggard said in a blog post Thursday.

The Kaesong industrial complex between the Koreas recently was shut down by the South, and had been a key source of hard-currency income. The joint economic complex opened in 2004 with hopes of economic cooperation and reconciliation.

Of course, the larger question is whether China will enforce the new sanctions. As North Korea's neighbor and key ally, China doesn't want a regime collapse, and for years has sought dialog, despite the North's provocations.

Even the execution of the North Korean leader's uncle Jang Song Thaek in late 2013 didn't deter China from engaging with the North. Jang was the North's key connector with China, and arguably one of the most powerful men in the North.

The late uncle had operated an international network of state trading firms and ever-expanding hard-currency operations, roughly analogous to a multi-national corporation. His political influence inside the regime was unparalleled, and he was among the few with access to Kim Jong Un on a regular basis, according to Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization in Alexandria, Virginia.

"Even after the execution of Jang Song Thaek, who was their primary middle man with North Korea, even after his execution, I think the Chinese have tried to establish a relationship with the North Korean leadership," said Cha, who led a conference on North Korea two weeks ago in Washington.

Read MoreHow Kim Jong Un is bankrolling his nuclear ambitions

"It's believed that forced laborers earn North Korea between $1.2 billion and $2.3 billion a year." -September 2015 U.N. report

The U.N. action calls for inspecting all cargo going in and out of the country, banning weapons trade and expanding the list of individuals facing sanctions. At a macro level, the intent is to stop the North's ability to source and raise funds for its nuclear program. And all this illicit activity is funded consistently.

A key source of income for the North is exported commodities, namely minerals. Other sources of hard currency include exported North Korean slave labor to China, and as far away as Europe.

Plus, there's a growing financial web that crosses borders and includes the use of outside commercial banks, as well as front and shell companies. This expanding network allows the ruling elite to move money and acquire everything from luxury goods to components for weapons of mass destructions, according to U.N. documents, congressional testimony and research by North Korea experts.

China provides North Korea with the "lion's share" of financial access, said Daniel Glaser, assistant U.S. treasury secretary for terrorist financing. He made the comments in January 2015 at a House Foreign Affairs Committee briefing on North Korea's potential cybersecurity threats after the Sony data breach in 2014.

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Michael Kirby is chair of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, and former justice of the Australian High Court.
Kazuhiro Nogi | AFP | Getty Images
Michael Kirby is chair of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, and former justice of the Australian High Court.

"We can't expect North Korea to bargain its way out of the current attraction to nuclear weapons," Michael Kirby, chairman of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, told CNBC.

"We have to continue to prepare for rendering accountable those who defy humanity and defy the institutions of humanity which include the Security Council, which has adopted very strong resolutions that North Korea has simply ignored," he said.