More than a month after North Korea fired a missile in contravention of two existing UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions, the Security Council passed UNSC Resolution 2087, condemning the use of ballistic missile technology in launch and saying the “act violated United Nations sanctions, expresses determination to take ‘significant action’ in event country proceeds with further launch.”
First, the good news: The action took the form of a resolution, not a presidential statement, which passed unanimously with China’s support.
At the margin, the resolution expands existing sanctions. It recognizes that the existing regime is leaky, referring to the use of bulk cash to evade sanctions, and signals that additional measures may be needed to tighten implementation. The South Korean defense ministry has claimed that wreckage recovered from the launch revealed parts and components of Chinese and European origin.
Specifically, the resolution expands travel bans and/or asset freezes to four additional individuals and six additional entities. It recognizes that the protocol for inspecting ships needs to be clarified in the event that the flag country or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) refuses permission. It affirms that the whole package will be kept under continuous review, recognizes that additional strengthening may be needed moving forward, and expresses its determination to take significant action in the event of a third nuclear test or additional missile launches. Lastly, it endorses the Six Party Talks.
Now the bad, or perhaps more accurately, disappointing, news: Given the political centrality of North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions, it is virtually impossible to imagine that this package of actions represents any real deterrent. We do not have information on whether the four sanctioned individuals travel, or have foreign assets, or can be easily replaced by colleagues not currently banned. Perhaps the member governments do. But at first glance, it is not obvious that this action imposes a major constraint on North Korean activities.
Likewise, the asset freezes on the six institutions would seem to represent a hopeless Whack-A-Mole approach. We know from nature of the bureaucratic processes within the member governments that generate these hit lists, and the inter-governmental negotiations that follow, that these six institutions constitute a small slice of the universe of North Korean entities engaged in proliferation. Indeed, the resolution openly acknowledges the problem by noting that some of the newly listed entities are subsidiaries—in effect shell companies—of other entities that have already been sanctioned. It is not at all obvious that this action significantly impedes proliferation.
The resolution does recognize that the existing sanctions regime leaks and needs to be tightened. But with respect to issues such as inspecting vessels, the devil is in the details. What we do know is that the enforcement of this resolution is via Chapter VII Article 41 which does not authorize forcible implementation, as does Article 42.
Not to be too cynical, but it appears that China has made a tactical concession of supporting a modest resolution that says all the right things: that North Korea does not enjoy protection under the Space Treaty for ballistic missile development; that it should cease and desist with respect to both missile development and nuclear activities; that Pyongyang should get back to the Six Party Talks. But what is Beijing really going to do about it? Resolutions of this sort only have effect—however limited—if actually implemented. China has derived the strategic advantage of tethering the United States and its allies to a path that is unlikely to succeed in deterring North Korea’s ambitions, while at the same time, taking the air out of what surely would have been impetus to pursue more robust PSI-type initiatives outside the UN ambit.
Not surprisingly, North Korea condemned the Security Council’s action. Are we in for another cycle—which we have noted before—of missile test, UN condemnation, nuclear test?