WASHINGTON - The United Nations Security Council's draft resolution on North
Korea's second underground nuclear test amounts to a slap on the wrist that's
likely to have minimal impact after an initial burst of rhetoric and headlines.
That's the impression given by an exercise in diplomatic sleight of hand that's
gotten the reluctant Chinese and Russians to go along with a draft that
condemns the nuclear test of May 25 "in the strongest terms" and demands the
Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) "not conduct any further nuclear
test" or launch more ballistic missiles.
The resolution goes on with equally unenforceable demands for the DPRK to
"suspend all activities" related to ballistic missiles, to "comply fully" with
the previous resolutions demanding the
same thing after its first nuclear test in October 2006, and to "abandon all
nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs in a complete, verifiable and
So what distinguishes this resolution from all the other "demands" aimed at
Pyongyang in recent years for North Korea to give up its nuclear program and
pour the billions needed for nukes and missiles resources into feeding its
people and repairing its decrepit economy?
The answer, in the hopeful view of the US diplomats responsible for fashioning
the resolution, lies in calls lower down for "all states" to inspect suspicious
cargo in their territory and even to stop vessels "on the high seas" if they're
believed to be carrying nuclear materiel or components - or the missiles for
firing them to distant targets.
For all such lingo, the resolution waffles on doing anything to stop North
Korea from carrying on as a newly minted member of the global nuclear elite.
China insisted on language that would make any real action voluntary - and was
responsible for the qualifying the call for inspections by saying they are to
go on "with the consent of the flag state".
The resolution also doesn't bother with the more difficult question of what to
do about suspicious aircraft. There is no mention of forcing down suspicious
planes, most of which presumably pass through Chinese or Russian air space in
transit between the DPRK and Middle Eastern clients and benefactors.
That omission is a fatal flaw because the DPRK in recent years is believed to
have cut down on shipments by sea in response to the US-inspired Proliferation
Security Initiative (PSI). Scores of nations, banded together under the PSI,
are cooperating on exchanging information about nuclear proliferation. Although
they have not yet done so, they also claim the right to stop and board ships
"North Koreans do a lot less business by sea because they are worried about
PSI," said John Bolton, noted for his tough line on North Korea while serving
in the George W Bush administration as US under secretary of state for arms
control and then as ambassador to the United Nations. "A lot goes overland and
by air over Russia," Bolton said.
The resolution is equally toothless on the issue of what to do about North
Korea's relationships with companies and financial firms through which it
imports components or exports arms and narcotics. Without establishing any
enforcement mechanism, it calls on member states to freeze "financial or other
assets or resources" that could "contribute" to the DPRK's nuclear and missile
programs. It also prohibits providing financial support that might aid such
programs and entering into new arrangements with the DPRK.
While China is paying lip service to this formulation, analysts doubt if such
verbiage will have much impact on China's role as the DPRK's only real ally and
the source of 80% of the aid it receives in the form of food, fuel and
fertilizer. China and Russia also continue to sell spare parts to the North
Korean armed forces, though shipments have fallen off markedly in recent years
as a result of the DPRK's failure to pay.
Nick Eberstadt, an expert on North Korea and resident scholar at the American
Enterprise Institute, cautioned against placing too much confidence in China as
the solution to the North Korean issue.
"Almost everyone in Washington and in Asia believes China is the road to
solution of the DPRK problem," he said. "I'm not sure that's right." Why, he
asked, has China in recent years quadrupled its aid to North Korea?
At the same time, Eberstadt noted, South Korea has lost heavily in trade with
North Korea, which wants to exclude the South from negotiations on the future
of the Korean Peninsula. China also has invested heavily in mining natural
resources in North Korea, the repository of mineral wealth ranging from gold to
uranium, while carrying on mounting trade, much of it on the free market across
the Yalu and Tumen river borders.
Against this background, John Bolton called for greater pressure on China to
pressure North Korea.
"What we really need is to go to China and explain China's policy is
schizophrenic and inconsistent," he said. "China fears if it does anything, it
will collapse the regime." Such an outcome would bring about chaos in the North
and possibly lead to thousands more North Koreans fleeing into northeast China.
"If China were to turn off assistance," Bolton said, "it could make any change
it wanted" in North Korean policy. "It should be easy to persuade China," he
added. "We're not interested in hostilities with them."
North Korean strategists were believed to be confident enough to formulate
shrill denunciations of any UN resolution, as they did in response to a
statement of "condemnation" issued by the UN Security Council after the test of
a long-range missile on April 5. There were even reports here that North Korea
was preparing to test a third nuclear device - and may soon fire another
"The North Koreans are not voluntarily going to give up their nuclear
capability," said Bolton. "The more you delay, the more they will come up with
increasingly sophisticated and ingenious designs."
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of
forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.