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North Korea continues to play games with its regional neighbours, shielded in part by its Cold War allies in the United Nations Security Council, and emboldened by its tactics and growing military capabilities. The question is what can anyone do about it?
By John Hemmings, International Security Studies Department
Despite dire warnings made by Japan, South Korea and the US, North Korea launched its Taepdong 2 missile on 5 April at 1130 local time. Because a previous launch in 2006 had merited UN sanctions, Pyongyang took pains to announce to the world that this was a communications satellite, going so far as to inform the International Maritime Organisation and the International Civil Aviation Organisation of the missile’s flight path. The advance warning did little to diminish the frenetic diplomatic manoeuvring against North Korea in the days running up to the launch. The United States and Japan began to talk up support for sanctions at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), of which Japan is currently a non-permanent member. Meanwhile Prime Minister Taro Aso met with South Korea’s Lee Myung-bak and China’s Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the London G20 Summit to coordinate a response. Yet, for all the talk of punishing North Korea, militarily if necessary, the international response that eventually materialised was less than impressive. As the missile streaked over the Japanese mainland, Japan’s threat to shoot it down never materialised, while US and ROK Aegis destroyers watched it passively fly by overhead, taking readings and collecting signal intelligence, but otherwise doing little else to interfere. France and the UK, both members of the Security Council promised their support for punitive measures against Pyongyang, but even as they made the necessary statements, it was clear that the Russians and the Chinese had other plans.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi conferred with each other shortly after the missile was launched. Whatever was said, some kind of understanding must have been reached, for their stances within the Security Council hardened shortly after. China made calming noises, counselling restraint and emphasising North Korea's satellite story in response to the strong US and Japan positions. Russia stated that it was looking into the situation to see whether UN Security Council Resolution 1718 – which is supposed to prohibit the North from engaging in ballistic missile activities – had been broken by the launch, but it appeared doubtful that it would. While the US, Japan and South Korea continued to push for action inside the UNSC, it seemed unlikely that any severe resolution would be passed. After speaking to both Lavrov and Jiechi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasised that US resolve on the issue had not shaken, and that it would continue to press for action, although in a less severe form than originally proposed. The statement released on 13 April was as close to a compromise as could be reached and was a small victory for the US: condemning the rocket launch, demanding that the North desist from further tests, and promising to adjust sanctions by the end of April.
How serious was it?
Whatever the nature of the rocket launched, it is clear that a major violation of international law took place. Despite the protestation of Pyongyang that this was a civilian satellite – an argument propounded by Russia and China – it is apparent from the type of vehicle and trajectory deployed that this was a ballistic missile test. Even as the population of Pyongyang turned out in their Sunday finest to ’celebrate’ the new North Korean satellite, the world’s intelligence agencies confirmed the splash down of the missile into the Pacific Ocean and its singular failure to put anything in orbit at all.
Fortunately, the statement by the UNSC proved to be more than just lip-service to international law; fears that we were witnessing a return to the divided Security Council that typified the Cold War have proven premature. It is understandable that neither China nor Russia want to see a failed North Korea on their borders, with the resulting refugee flows and instability; this concern explains, partially at least, their willingness to give Pyongyang a free rein to pursue its weapons development. The status quo ante remains as North Korea hold both friend and foe hostage to its own strategic calculations. North Korea’s announcement on 14 April that it is henceforth quitting the Six Party Talks and will restart the reprocessing of spent fuel rods in an attempt to bolster its nuclear deterrent is nothing new; we have been here before, and likely will be here again. It is returning all players to their start positions. This time, North Korea seems to have isolated itself even further from its closest allies. And for what reason? According to Dr. Syung Je Park, analyst at the Asia Strategic Institute, much of North Korean policy at the moment is aimed at diverting attention from Kim Jong-il's real priority: securing the Kim family's hold on the levers of power in Pyongyang. Having suffered a stroke in August, Kim has decided that the best way to deal with the problem of succession without external inteference is to assume a bellicose posture. Unfortunately, while this explanation offers a causal rationale for Pyongyang's behaviour, it does not readily suggest a method for dealing with the effects of that behaviour.
The international response
As was expected, there was little agreement on imposing new sanctions on the North within the UNSC, but there is a shared feeling that the Six Party Talks need to continue despite North Korea’s attempt to leave the talks unilaterally. Obama’s Czar on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, announced on the Friday before the launch that the long-term US priority was to revitalise the Six Party Talks and that this is likely to be the next step taken by the regional actors. Russia has signalled its support in a statement, and China looks likely to follow. But this assumes that the Talks are a useful and genuinely effective tool with which to deal with North Korea’s missile programme. Some critics ask, however, what real benefit the Six Party Talks have to offer, given that they have had few apparent results. Naturally, they remain a useful forum for regional dialogue, but it remains to be seen whether they can have any impact on a regime intent on survival and clinging to the weapons that give it some sort of leverage over its more powerful neighbours.
Much will depend on how President Obama builds North Korea into his new disarmament and non-proliferation strategy, particularly how he utilises the diplomatic and strategic tools and institutions left behind by his predecessors. Two existing instruments could be deployed to some effect. One of these is the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which South Korea has just announced an intention to join. Ship-to-ship search and seizure remains an impressive tool in the anti-proliferation armoury, but perhaps it is a step out of date given the ability of North Korea to proliferate in these technologies online or through its Iran-Syria network. Still, the PSI could be strengthened further, and made into a global watchdog, with broader capabilities, covering, air, sea and land, not to mention cyberspace.
A second step might be a focused strengthening of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and its attendant institutions, like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Whether or not Obama is able to develop a strong strategy for dealing with North Korea remains to be seen. To some extent, the answer to that question depends on one's degree of optimism about the whole situation. There are some who believe that North Korea continues to play a merry tune to which others must dance, but that it will never give up its nuclear ambitions; hope is merely another form of leverage Pyongyang uses to buy itself time. Then there are others, determined to restart the Six Party Talks, who must believe that all of their efforts, all of their energy, time, and money are being spent on something more than an illusion. Let us hope the latter are closer to the truth.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.