The United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting on Memorial Day in response to North Korea’s latest act of defiance of the international community. North Korea conducted its most powerful nuclear test to date.
The Russian UN ambassador, who has been serving as the Council’s president during May, said afterwards that Council members “voiced their strong opposition to and condemnation of the nuclear test”. They also “demand that [North Korea] comply fully with its obligations” to comply with a previous Security Council resolution passed after its first nuclear test in 2006. And the Russian ambassador announced that the Council was going to “start work immediately on a Security Council resolution on this matter”. As of the writing of this article, discussions are underway on how to beef up the sanctions but no concrete action has been taken.
If President Obama is relying on the UN Security Council to rein in North Korea after the rogue regime's latest nuclear test, he is wasting his time. Strong words - even with North Korea's allies China and Russia signing on to a unanimous resolution - will not work.
We know this because we have been down that same dead-end before. On October 14, 2006, the Security Council passed a resolution that condemned North Korea for its first nuclear test earlier that month, as well as for its missile testing. The resolution also called for North Korea to return to the six-party negotiations.
The 2006 Security Council resolution invoked the enforcement powers of Article VII of the UN Charter but specifically ruled out military enforcement, no doubt to deter the United States from repeating its military action against Iraq.
The resolution did contain a series of sanctions, which sounded good on paper. It prohibited the provision of large-scale arms, nuclear technology and related training to North Korea, as well as luxury goods. It also prohibited the procurement of conventional weapons, spare parts and delivery systems from North Korea. It imposed travel restrictions and a freeze on the funds, other financial assets and economic resources that are owned or controlled by certain designated individuals and entities engaged in or providing support for North Korea’s missile, nuclear and other weapon of mass destruction- related programs.
The resolution called upon all member states to take cooperative action, including through inspection of cargo, in accordance with their respective national laws. The Council stressed that such inspections should aim to prevent illicit trafficking in nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, as well as their means of delivery and related materials.
The only problem with all this is that without the will to use more muscular measures, including appropriate military force, the resolution had little chance of success from the get-go. And there was no follow-through on cargo inspections.
Since then, North Korea has been in and out of the six-party negotiations and made a public display of beginning the dismantling of one of its nuclear facilities. But that was just a temporary ploy to buy time.
This past April North Korea reverted to its old tricks, conducting a disguised test of its long-range missile technology. In response to this violation of the 2006 resolution, the Security Council issued a president’s non-binding statement of displeasure with North Korea’s actions on April 13, 2009. The Council delegated the responsibility for determining what additional steps, if any, should be taken to tighten the sanctions to a committee led by Turkey as chair and Libya and Costa Rica as vice chairs. The committee named three more boycotted entities – two trading companies and a banking firm – and adopted the United States’ proposed updated list of items, goods, materials, equipment and technology related to ballistic missile programs that should be part of the sanctions.
It made no difference. North Korea became even more defiant. It ruled out any further negotiations. And it restarted its nuclear operations, leading up to its latest nuclear test.
As long as China and Russia put their economic interests above truly participating in the complete economic isolation of North Korea and as long as Iran and Syria remain lucrative customers for its nuclear and missile technologies, sanctions alone will continue to be a waste of time.
Sanctions did help to bring down the apartheid regime in South Africa after most of the world including the United States took part. That’s because the regime had virtually no place to turn for trade or aid. But South Africa was the exception rather than the rule. Some analysts have found that economic sanctions applied against authoritarian regimes have as low as a two percent success rate. There are too many other like-minded authoritarian regimes in the world that are more than willing to do business with them.
The rogue regimes of North Korea and Iran – just like Saddam Hussein’s regime before them – have managed to find ways around sanctions and have even turned the sanctions to their advantage. As former Secretary General Kofi Annan wrote in his Millennium Report, “those in power, perversely, often benefit from such sanctions by their ability to control and profit from black market activity, and by exploiting them as a pretext for eliminating domestic sources of political opposition.”
North Korea may be several years away from being able to use its nuclear devices as strategic weapons, which requires being able to fit a bomb on a long-range missile. The gravest danger from North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs in the near term is the transfer of the technology and parts to rogue nations like Iran and to terrorists directly.
There is one action suggested in the 2006 resolution that is worth pursuing vigorously – inspection of cargo going to and from North Korea. I mean going beyond inspection of the cargo in ports. We should assemble a coalition of the willing to interdict ships on the high-seas that are believed to be carrying illicit cargo and confiscate it. This is the idea behind the Proliferation Security Initiative started under President Bush’s administration. It worked with Libya to end its nuclear program because real muscle was used to reinforce the rhetoric of non-proliferation.
About 95 nations are members or at least supporters of the Proliferation Security Initiative, which operates outside of the United Nations system. South Korea has already indicated that it will participate in the initiative to interdict shipments to and from North Korea. Hopefully, other countries including Japan will also participate.
It is time to call North Korea’s bluff.