Finally, after nearly three weeks of dithering, the UN Security Council adopted a strengthened sanctions resolution against North Korea on June 12, 2009. Resolution 1874 was the UN’s belated response to North Korea’s nuclear test, which it conducted on Memorial Day.
The resolution condemned the latest nuclear test conducted in “violation and flagrant disregard” of prior relevant Security Council resolutions. It also demanded that North Korea “not conduct any further nuclear test or any launch using ballistic missile technology.”
Aside from the rhetoric, the resolution included enhanced provisions for inspections of cargo suspected of carrying military materials in or out of North Korea, a tighter arms embargo and new financial restrictions.
“Acting unanimously and agreeing on credible measures, the members of the Security Council have sent today a clear and strong message to the DPRK [North Korea],” Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesperson said in a statement praising the Security Council’s action.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that there are still major loopholes in the resolution.
For example, no force can be used to back up the cargo inspections. If there are reasonable grounds to believe that a ship contains suspected cargo, member countries can first try to inspect the ship with the consent of the flag state on the high seas or, in the alternative, to direct the ship to a port so that it can be inspected there. If the flag state refuses either alternative, it is to be reported to the Security Council's committee on North Korea sanctions. That’s it. The ship can go on its merry way with no greater penalty than a bad report to a UN committee.
The nation that holds the key to the North Korean nuclear program, China, has made clear even the possibility of force is off the table. Chinese UN Ambassador Zhang Yesui has warned categorically, “Under no circumstance should there be the use of force or the threat of use of force.”
As veteran UN reporter Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press commented after hearing an explanation of the cargo inspection provision from the Japanese UN ambassador, it “is reminiscent of a scene in the spoof film Team America, in which Hans Blix is asked by Kim Jong Il what Blix will do if North Korea does not comply. 'We will write another letter to you,' Blix answers before being thrown to the sharks.”
The resolution also allows for sale of “small” arms and “light” weapons to North Korea. When the French UN ambassador was asked the rationale for this exclusion, he remarked that the exclusion “was requested by some member states saying that what we want to achieve is not to have a full embargo against the country of North Korea, what we want to achieve is to cut the links that North Korea has to get some resources to fund its programs and its [sic.] by exporting arms that they get some funding.” (Emphasis added.)
No doubt this was part of the price to get China on board, along with the limit on use of force to back up the cargo inspections. China is North Korea’s largest supplier of small arms.
There is also a huge loophole in the resolution’s international ban on commitments for grants, financial assistance and loans to North Korea. The ban will not apply to financial transactions entered into with North Korea for “humanitarian and developmental purposes.” In January 2008, a report by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs concluded that the North Korean government had used its relationship with the United Nations Development Programme to execute deceptive financial transactions. The UN agency also reportedly transferred UN developmental funds to a company that had ties to an entity involved in North Korean weapons activity.
Why decide now to trust the North Koreans with any monies it receives, especially now? This is the road to a second Oil-for-Food scandal.
Predictably, North Korea lashed out at the UN resolution, threatening to escalate its nuclear bomb-making program and threatening war if its ships are interfered with.
Half-a-loaf may be better than none, but in this case it may have been worse than nothing at all. This gives the appearance of action with minimal (and easily circumvented) provisions to arrest the program. Unless the United States and its partners in the Proliferation Security Initiative decide to act outside of the confines of the UN Security Council resolution, the smuggling of arms and nuclear and missile technology to and from North Korea will continue unabated. North Korea will still be able to replenish its financial resources by buying and then re-selling “small” arms and “light” weapons and collecting “humanitarian” aid. Resolution 1874 reaches the lowest common denominator among diametrically opposed interests and values, sliding past the most difficult issues in a fog of words.