“Deja Vu All Over Again”: The UNSC, China and Missiles

To quote Casey Stengel, its déjà vu all over again. As we noted in an earlier post, the pattern of missile test, UN condemnation, DPRK indignation, nuclear test seems set to repeat itself; over the weekend, intelligence leaks in South Korea were suggesting that the test could come earlier than expected, perhaps as soon as two weeks.

UN Security Council actions have always been constrained by China’s (and to a lesser extent Russia’s) veto. But Beijing may not be abiding by even the watered-down resolutions and presidential statements coming out of New York. The military parade before which Kim Jong Un gave his maiden speech included a transporter erector launcher for short- and intermediate range missiles that appears to be of Chinese design; moreover, there is also the possibility that Chinese technology may have played a role in the missile launch itself.

These allegations remain unproven, the US is being cautious, and there are certainly stories we can construct that do not involve intentional subversion of the sanctions; we review them below. Nonetheless such leakage not only weakens UNSC action but further calls into question  Beijing’s role as an honest broker in the long-stalled Six Party Talks.

In this post, we first document the “déjà vu all over again” and then comment briefly on the Presidential Statement in light of the stories on Chinese support for the DPRK missile program.

We reproduce below in full the KCNA reports of Pyongyang’s reaction to five UNSC actions:

  • UNSCR 1695 (July 15, 2006) following the missile tests;
  • UNSCR 1718 (October 14, 2006) following the first nuclear test;
  • The Presidential Statement of April 13, 2009, following the long-range missile test;
  • UNSCR 1874 (June 12, 2009), following the second nuclear test;
  • The Presidential Statement of April 16, 2012, following the recent failed launch.

They have a depressing similarity. In particular,

  • The tests in question were themselves the result of a hostile policy on the part of the US and the need of North Korea to defend itself, despite the fact that at none of these junctures were there any signs of increased US military threats.
  • The resolutions were nothing more than a concerted effort to disarm North Korea and render it vulnerable. In a line that could have come straight out of the Melian dialogue in Thucydides, one statement notes that “only the strong can defend justice in the world today where the jungle law prevails. Neither the UN nor anyone else can protect us.”
  • The responses all exhibit the convoluted legalism that is characteristic of North Korean diplomacy.  North Korea argues that it was fully within its sovereign right to test missiles–and even nuclear weapons because of their formal withdrawal from the NPT—and that all tests were conducted with full transparency. In particular, the satellite-missile distinction and reference to the space treaty was unveiled in force in the wake of the 2009 Presidential Statement. As Jared Genser argued for us, North Korea seems to be technically incorrect with respect to the major international legal issues involved, which is hardly surprising. As a member of the United Nations, North Korea is legally bound by UNSC decisions, period.

We admit that these positions make sense given the small and thoroughly militarized nature of the country. But there is one kicker. All of the North Korean statements also contain more or less explicit threats. While the earlier (ie. 2006) threats seemed open to improved relations with the US and the resumption of talks—and are even seeking to force the issue–the ones from 2009 forward show much less interest and the most recent explicitly reneges on the freeze; draw your own conclusions.

To cite chapter and verse:

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