For weeks, the U.S. and other world powers begged, pleaded, and cajoled North Korea into canceling its plan to launch a rocket into space. On Friday, April 13, Pyongyang gave its answer, sending a sputtering rocket soaring and then diving into the sea in abject failure.
Today, the 15-nation Security Council took a fresh tack, issuing a sharply worded statement that "strongly condemns" North Korea's failed April 13 rocket-launch, and announces plans to tighten existing U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang's government. In the event that North Korea is not impressed, the council warned that it would take additional unspecified "action" if Pyongyang conducts another ballistic missile test or explodes another nuclear weapon device.
If the initial smirks I read on my Twitter feed today are any indication, it remains unlikely that the council's latest action will fuel confidence that the world is prepared to stand up to Pyongyang's provocations. There is ample reason to be skeptical that the U.N. Security Council, hobbled by Chinese intransigence, can muster the political will to make existing sanctions truly bite. In the past, China has tangled the Security Council committee responsible for monitoring North Korea sanctions in red tape, and blocked the release of reports by an expert panel detailing violations of UN sanctions.
So, the real imponderable is what today's action says about China's intentions. David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, told Turtle Bay that the council's actions constitute "incremental" steps to pressure the North Korean government. But he said there importance lies in the fact that China, which has long provided political cover for Pyongyang, has decided to ramp up pressure, however minimal, on its neighbor and dependent.
"This is more than I expected. It shows there is some desire to seriously start to pressure North Korea within the confines established by China," said Albright, who visited Pyongyang in December, where he discussed North Korean nuclear program with senior officials.
The force of the expanded sanctions will depend largely on China's willingness to tighten the screws, Albright said. Traditionally, China has been a drag on this system of U.N. sanctions. "Will China now put pressure on North Korea, and suddenly stop searching everything that goes into North Korea by train or by truck?" said Albright. "Will it start cracking down on North Korea illicit procurement for its missile and nuclear programs?"
The council's statement, which was adopted with the approval of all 15 members of the U.N. body, including China, stops short of adopting any new measures in response to Pyongyang's action, which the council claimed constitutes a "serious violation" of two U.N. resolutions banning missile launches.
But it demands North Korea, which is formally called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), observe a moratorium on future missile launches and warned that the council would take additional unspecified "action" if Pyongyang conducted another ballistic missile test or exploded another nuclear weapons device.
"The Security Council demands that the DPRK not proceed with any further launches using ballistic missile technology" and suspend "all activities related to its ballistic missile program," according to the statement, which was read out by Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who is acting as this month's Security Council president. "The Security Council underscores that this satellite launch, as well as any launch that uses ballistic missile technology, even if characterized as a satellite launch or space launch vehicle, is a serious violation of Security Council resolutions."
This marked the second time the council has weighed in on the crisis in the past four days. One day after the launch, the council issued a mild initial statement -- known in Security Council parlance as "elements" -- deploring the missile launch and pledging to consider further action. The latest "presidential statement" -- which carries more weight than elements but less than a resolution -- was largely hammered out in series of closed-door meeting between Rice and China's U.N. ambassador Li Baodong.
Today's action pledges the council's commitment to instruct a sanctions committee to "adjust" previous penalties by expanding the list of individuals and firms that are subject to a travel ban and asset freeze. The statement indirectly hints at the council's struggles to conduct its routine tasks, typically in the face of Chinese resistance.
For instance, its urges the council's sanctions' committee, which is comprised of representatives of the council's 15 members, to update basic information about individuals and firms targeted by U.N. sanctions. It also commits the Security Council, which votes on its decisions, to revisit the matter if the sanctions committee, whose decisions require consensus, is unable to reach agreement on a new set of sanctions targets within two weeks. The provision is aimed at foiling China's silent veto.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.