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Korean tensions at an alarming level

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North Korea’s recent nuclear test and rocket launch have heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula once again to such a dangerous level that any misreading of signals by either side of the two Koreas could trigger a conflict that destabilizes Northeast Asia.

At an emergency meeting convened after the Feb. 7 launch of a North Korean rocket carrying a satellite, the U.N. Security Council condemned Pyongyang for what it called a “de facto launching of a long-range ballistic missile” designed to contribute to the development of a nuclear weapon delivery system, in violation of a series of U.N. resolutions against North Korea. The council, which had condemned the North’s fourth nuclear test just a month earlier on Jan. 6, reaffirmed that a clear threat to international peace and security continued to exist on the peninsula.

On Feb. 10, South Korea suspended its operations in the Kaesong Industrial Park, which was opened just a few kilometers north of the demilitarized zone in 2004 as a symbol of the North-South cooperation, in retaliation for the rocket launch and nuclear test. The park, where some 50,000 North Korean workers were employed by South Korean companies, had provided an important source of revenue for North Korea. Seoul also agreed to start its discussion with Washington for the deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system, which would offer better protection against North Korea’s growing nuclear threat.

North Korea, in return, expelled South Korean workers from the industrial park, froze all the assets of South Korean firms operating there and placed the entire industrial zone under its military rule, while cutting its hotlines with Seoul. The tension on the divided peninsula is expected to escalate further if and when the annual U.S.-South Korea joint military drill takes place next month as planned. North Korea also canceled its investigation into the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by its agents decades ago in retaliation for the additional sanctions Tokyo imposed in protest of the nuclear and missile test.

After what North Korea claimed was a “successful test of a hydrogen bomb” in January, China, North Korea’s traditional ally, sent its special envoy to Pyongyang to urge North Korea to return to the six-party talks, a framework of dialogue that started in 2003 to find a peaceful solution to the security concern on the peninsula. The six-party talks, participated in by South Korea, North Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, remains suspended since Pyongyang pulled out of it after the Security Council condemned its failed satellite launch in April 2009. The mission undertaken by Wu Dawei, China’s special representative for Korean Peninsula affairs, however, yielded little result as North Korea announced its rocket launch project during the envoy’s visit to Pyongyang.

Wu’s mission revealed the limited extent to which China could influence the external policy of North Korea under its leader Kim Jong Un, who took the position after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011. For one thing, China does not share with Kim Jong Un the kind of trust and confidence it used to enjoy with his father and his grandfather, Kim Il Sun. For another, while it supports a denuclearized Korean Peninsula and condemns North Korea’s nuclear test and rocket launch, China cannot afford to lose North Korea as a “buffer” against the U.S. military presence in South Korea. It would be a nightmare for Beijing to see the communist North fall and face a unified Korea under Washington’s strong influence.

Despite its verbal condemnation of North Korea, China has been less enthusiastic about imposing additional sanctions against Pyongyang at the Security Council, where it sits as one of the five veto-wielding permanent members, along with the U.S., Britain, France and Russia. On its part, North Korea is cognizant of Beijing’s dilemma and continues its diplomatic brinkmanship.

The U.N. Security Council has adopted a series of resolutions, including 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013) and 2094 (2013) to condemn North Korea’s nuclear tests as well as rocket launches, imposing economic and travel sanctions based on the Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter against the country. The latter resolution, adopted in 2013 after North Korea’s nuclear test, had warned that the council would “take further significant measures in the event of a further DPRK launch or nuclear test.” Whether the Security Council can come up with a meaningful new resolution with significant measures anytime soon depends primarily on the ongoing negotiation between China and the U.S., which advocates strong measures against North Korea.

While negotiations for a new resolution continue at the Security Council, every effort should be made to de-escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has expressed his readiness to play a constructive role for peace, stability and dialogue on the peninsula. Ban planned to visit the Kaesong Industrial Park in May last year, but Pyongyang canceled his visit abruptly just a day before his planned arrival.

A South Korean national, Ban himself may not be able to undertake a mission to visit North Korea under present circumstances. However, he could still demonstrate leadership and exercise his good offices role under the U.N. Charter by dispatching a high-level envoy, such as his deputy Jan Eliasson, a former Swedish foreign minister with a long U.N. career, to Pyongyang to secure a link of direct communication with the top North Korean leadership. At a time when the six-party talks are suspended and the discussion at the Security Council is stalled, the personal leadership of the U.N. secretary-general is needed more than ever to help de-escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

A former U.N. official, Hitoki Den is the author of the “Kokuren wo Yomu: Watashino Seimukan Noto Kara” (“A Story of the U.N.: From the Notes of a Political Affairs Officer”) published in Japanese by The Japan Times.