North Korea and the UN Security Council Dance Again: Nuclear Test on the Horizon

It has been a busy month in politics on the Korean peninsula, beginning with North Korea’s missile launch on 12th December followed by the South Korean presidential poll which saw the election of Park Geun Hye, the country’s first female president.  Former US Ambassador to the United Nations, Governor Bill Richardson and Google chairman Eric Schmidt made a much-publicised visit to Pyongyang in the new year.

This week, the UN Security Council passed UNSC Resolution 2087, which tightened economic sanctions on North Korea and provoked a hostile reaction from the North Korean government, which promised further long-range rocket launches and a third nuclear test in the coming months.

Uniteded Nations Security Council.
Uniteded Nations Security Council.

Tightening the Noose on Pyongyang?

UNSC 2087 appears to have three intended purposes.

First, it contains strong language communicating the international community’s condemnation of the December rocket launch and demanding North Korea’s abandonment of all ballistic missile development and nuclear weapons proliferation, in line with previous demands made in Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874.

Second, it intends to further squeeze the North Korean government’s income streams and proliferation financing with a view to forcing Pyongyang back into denuclearisation negotiations in a weakened bargaining position.

Third, the resolution serves as a pre-emptive warning to deter any future North Korean nuclear test.

Despite its stern rhetoric, the expansion of sanctions in UNSC 2087 is relatively mild.  It places travel bans and asset freezes on four officials and six state-owned enterprises from the North Korean space program from Pyongyang’s amorphous network of foreign exchange banks and dummy companies, which exist to subvert international sanctions and fund North Korea’s nuclear and missile proliferation activities.

The pre-existing sanctions regime imposed by previous Security Council resolutions and domestic legal instruments includes measures such as restrictions on North Korean exports, asset freezes applied to specific North Korean citizens and enterprises, and controls on North Korean imports of dual-use technologies.  The sanctions regime is enforced via the Proliferation Security Initiative, a global naval interdiction effort aimed at disrupting WMD trafficking.  In relation to North Korea, this involves the selective targeting of ships outbound from North Korea to intercept cargoes of narcotics, missiles and weapons technology.

Locking in Confrontation

The sanctions regime has been largely ineffective in controlling North Korea’s nuclear and missile proliferation activities.  Historically, tightening sanctions has pushed Pyongyang into more belligerent behaviour.  Take for instance the asset freeze imposed on Macau-based bank Banco Delta Asia in 2005, which locked up US$24 million in North Korean funds because of evidence linking it with North Korean counterfeit operations.  In this case, putting on the squeeze led to Pyongyang’s July 2006 missile tests and its first nuclear test the following October.  In the aftermath of the nuclear test it was the US and its regional allies that made concessions in lifting the asset freeze, not the North Korean government.

Tellingly, sanctions imposed by UNSC Resolution 1718 in the wake of the October 2006 nuclear test had no perceptible effect on North Korea’s trade with China and South Korea.   Indeed the inability of the international community to prevent North Korea testing a nuclear device is evidence of its weak leverage over Pyongyang.

North Korea is a determined nuclear weapons and ballistic missile proliferator.  Its proliferation calculus hinges on a number of economic, strategic, political and bureaucratic motivations all linked to the regime’s over-arching goal of survival.

Even under the newly-minted leadership of Kim Jong Un, the North Korean government is highly unlikely to relinquish its nuclear weapons and missile programs, regardless of any suite of incentives or threats of punishment from the international community, precisely because these programs have become deeply embedded in the political economy of the DPRK state.

Murmurs have been growing over the past few months of a third North Korean nuclear test.  For a determined proliferator a third nuclear test makes sense, as Pyongyang still has technical hurdles to overcome to confirm its status as a nuclear weapons power.  It must demonstrate that its scientists can miniaturise a nuclear bomb that can be deployed atop a reliable long-range missile.

If there were any doubts about the likelihood of a third nuclear test in the coming year, UNSC 2087 and Pyongyang’s bellicose reaction all but dispel any doubt that further North Korean provocations are on the horizon.

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