NEW YORK – North Korea shocked the world again this month by conducting yet another nuclear test in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions that had imposed tough economic sanctions against the regime. The first nuclear test since January and the fifth since 2006 was reportedly the most powerful one thus far. The nuclear blast also came on the heels of some 20 ballistic missile launches by Pyongyang in recent months.
The Security Council was quick in condemning the nuclear test. In a press statement adopted hours after the Sept. 9 blast, the council said it would “begin its work immediately on appropriate measures under Article 41.” Article 41 of the U.N. Charter refers to non-military enforcement measures that may include “complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air postal, telegraphic, radio and other means of communications, and the severance of diplomatic relations.”
Whether the council can come up with effective measures to curtail North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in the foreseeable future remains to be seen, however. China and Russia, two veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, have already voiced their reservation about imposing additional sanctions against North Korea.
When North Korean conducted the last nuclear test in January, the council came to an agreement to expand the scope of sanctions restricting trade with Pyongyang only in March, after two months of lengthy negotiations between China on the one hand and the United States, which pushed for strong measures, on the other.
While it has been strengthened steadily since the first nuclear test a decade ago, the U.N. sanction regime has not produced the desired effects in preventing North Korea from pursing its nuclear program. In addition to the two nuclear tests this year, Pyongyang has test-fired 21 ballistic missiles over the last eight months, including a submarine-launched ballistic missile on Aug. 24 and three medium-range missiles on Sept. 5, when world leaders were gathering for a Group of 20 summit in Hangzhou, China.
Apparently behind North Korea’s steadfastness in pursuing the nuclear program is a shrewd but dangerous calculation that doing so would serve its strategic interest, both internally and externally. It is well known that North Korea under the dictatorship of Kim Jong Un is faced with a wide range of socioeconomic problems, including a near-bankrupt economy and serious human rights violations. Successful missile launches and nuclear tests provide the North Korean leader, at least temporarily, with a convenient camouflage to divert public attention from these problems under the frenzy of nationalism.
Externally, Kim believes that the nuclear program would help strengthen North Korea’s bargaining position vis-a-vis the U.S. and South Korea, while gaining international recognition that his country should be treated as a nuclear state, rather than a pariah. South Korea’s recent decision to deploy the U.S. THAAD missile defense system in response to the threat from the North has already alienated China, which believes that the sophisticated missile defense system is also targeted at Beijing.
North Korea realizes that its provocative nuclear policy has heightened tensions on the divided Korean Peninsula to an unprecedented level and could risk its very existence if a war breaks out. However, Pyongyang also understands that although Beijing is frustrated by its pursuit of nuclear weapons, China, its traditional ally, cannot afford to see its collapse, which would shift the balance of power on the Korean Peninsula in favor of the U.S.
While strongly condemning the nuclear test, the Chinese spokeswoman noted the nuclear problem was a conflict between North Korea and the U.S., saying, “The U.S. should take on its responsibility, since it is to blame for starting the trouble.”
North Korea is cognizant of Beijing’s dilemma and is expected to continue its brinkmanship at a time when its nuclear weapons development is said to be near completion. In fact there have been reports that North Korea is prepared to conduct another nuclear test by the end of this year.
Under the circumstances, while the Security Council should work in unity and demonstrate its unwavering support for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the sanction-oriented approach alone will not likely lead to a solution of the North Korean nuclear problem. Greater efforts should be made 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 U.S., remains suspended since Pyongyang pulled out of them after the Security Council condemned its failed satellite launch in April 2009. As history often attests, only when it is accompanied by efforts for dialogue can a sanction regime prove effective. Pyongyang needs to be convinced that peace and development, and not costly nuclear weapons development, would best serve its national interest.
In this context, what is conspicuously missing at the U.N. is the secretary-general’s good offices initiative based on the U.N. Charter. The secretary-general has a clear mandate under the charter to act as an impartial and honest broker for peace, independent of member states, when needed. With less than four months to go before his term ends at the end of the year, Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean national, has been less effective than hoped in de-escalating the tension on the Korean Peninsula.
The U.N. is in the midst of selecting the next secretary-general and the Security Council, following rounds of straw polls, is expected to recommend its final candidate to the General Assembly for approval next month. The U.N. must this time select a person of courage and leadership as its new chief so that the impartial and independent good offices role of the secretary-general can be made available when the world needs it.
A former United Nations official, Hitoki Den is the author of “Kokuren wo Yomu: Watashino Seimukan Noto Kara” (“A Story of the U.N.: From the Notes of a Political Affairs Officer”) and many other articles on U.N. and Asian issues.
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