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UN Security Council Response to North Korea's Missile Test: Washington's Policy Debate

North Korea's efforts to exploit divisions among members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in its response to its April 5, 2009, test of a multi-stage rocket has proven to be a slightly harder political target than some in Pyongyang may have anticipated. The DPRK utilized preemptive threats in a statement issued a week before the launch in an attempt to deter UN actions and exploit differences among UNSC permanent members over whether to characterize the launch as a missile test or a satellite launch. The North's intent to deter passage of a UN Security Council resolution condemning the North Korean action has succeeded, but the North has also threatened retaliation even in response to a presidential statement. In response to the UN action, North Korea must now make a tough call on whether to return to six party negotiations.

The presidential statement issued by the UN Security Council is not as strong a condemnation of North Korea's rocket launch as the United States, Japan, and South Korea may have hoped for, but it is stronger than many had been led to expect prior to the test. The statement renews sanctions efforts anticipated under UN Security Council Resolution 1718 that were suspended with North Korea's return to the six party talks in late 2006. However, the resumption of a new international sanctions process may prove equally as ineffective in deterring or punishing North Korea as those pursued following North Korea's 2006 nuclear test, as one might infer from Marcus Noland's recent analysis on the (non) impact of UN sanctions on North Korea.

I would suggest that there are four benchmarks by which to judge the response of the United Nations and the Obama administration to North Korea's test. First, the precedent set by the existence of prior UN Security Council resolutions on the subject suggests a weaker response by the international community in 2009 than in 2006, although North Korea's prior notice of the test makes the circumstances surrounding the launch somewhat different from 2006. Second, the statement falls short of the rhetorical standard President Obama set in his speech in Prague when he said that following the North Korean launch that it was a clear violation of a prior UN Security Council resolution and that "Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something."

On the other hand, a third benchmark will be whether or not the statement leads to an early resumption of six party talks; if the North does not return to negotiations following a mere presidential statement, this outcome would also fall short of the response to the missile and nuclear tests in 2006. Fourth, the unity of the response has enabled an early outcome of UN deliberations and has thwarted North Korean attempts to exploit international divisions, whereas the possibility of prolonged stalemate over a stronger statement would have provided North Korea with a clear moral victory.

Another effect of the North Korean missile test was to catalyze a range of policy recommendations and responses among Washington-based policy analysts. The range of policy responses includes the following views. Victor Cha advocates on the Foreign Affairs website that the United States should re-impose economic sanctions under UN Security Council resolution 1718, reinvigorate U.S. Treasury sanctions against North Korean illicit activities under Section 311 of the Patriot Act, consider restoring North Korea to the terrorism list, begin planning with South Korea and China for a post-Kim Jong Il regime, and pursue an ambitious humanitarian aid program to feed every North Korean child. Bruce Klingner, in a WebMemo from the Heritage Foundation, also advocated re-imposition of UN and U.S. sanctions on North Korea under a new resolution, supports continued missile defense efforts, and calls for South Korea to join the Proliferation Security Initiative.

The recommendations for a strong UN Security Council-led sanctions approach are understandable but have proven to be impracticable given Chinese and Russian unwillingness to back another resolution condemning the launch. Likewise, China will be cautious about planning for a post-Kim Jong Il regime, especially given the outstanding strategic mistrust of U.S. intentions on the Korean peninsula that still exists in Beijing. The idea of feeding North Korean children is a laudable humanitarian goal, but North Korean children can only be fed with cooperation from the North Korean regime; there still is no unfettered means by which the international community can be assured that food provided to North Korea is reaching the people with the greatest needs.

Mitchell Reiss, writing on Foreign Policy's shadow government website, recommends a policy of "malign neglect." He argues that the Obama administration should be open to renewed six party talks, but should not otherwise be overeager to engage in renewed negotiations with North Korea. He also emphasizes repairing relations with Asian allies and encourages South Korea to join the Proliferation Security Initiative.

While I agree that the United States does not need to be over-eager in its efforts to engage North Korea--especially given that diplomatic relations with the United States has long been a foremost DPRK policy objective--I believe that "malign neglect" is untenable precisely because North Korea's penchant for crisis escalation and capacity to endure a prolonged state of tension is higher than that of the United States. Reiss's specific recommendations are quite reasonable.

At a U.S.-Korea Institute meeting held the day after the North Korean missile launch and covered by C-Span, Jack Pritchard noted the likelihood that the Obama administration would pursue a broadened agenda of nuclear talks with North Korea including proliferation and enriched uranium programs that had been set aside under the Bush administration, advocated widening visa requirements for North Koreans to increase exposure to the United States, suggested strengthening trilateral U.S.-Japan-South Korea coordination, and endorsed engaging China on contingency planning for a North Korean succession or other instability.

Alan Romberg warned that North Korea may carry through with its threats to walk away from six party negotiations pending an overly strong response from the UN Security Council, emphasized strengthened alliance coordination with South Korea and Japan, and advocated continued coordination with China as the basis for negotiating with North Korea.

Joel Wit argued that North Korea's expanded capabilities make it considerably more difficult to deal with following the nuclear test, argued that a policy response focused on managing rather than resolving the challenge posed by North Korea until circumstances change in the U.S. favor is "a losing proposition." Wit argued that North Korea is likely to continue with further provocations including missile tests and proliferation of advanced nuclear and missile technologies, and that the United States should change the dynamics of the relationship with North Korea by relying on an array of aggressive and comprehensive diplomatic efforts at many different levels on a wide range of subjects to pursue denuclearization and diplomatic relations.

Also on the Foreign Policy website, Morton Abramowitz, who accompanied Ambassador Stephen Bosworth on a private visit to Pyongyang in February of this year prior to Ambassador Bosworth's appointment as the point person for the Obama administration's policy toward North Korea, concludes that an approach that emphasizes continuity is only likely to lead to frustration and will not succeed in convincing the North Korean leadership to give up their "trump card," nuclear weapons. Instead, he advocates a "radical change in relations: a peace treaty for the peninsula, the normalization of all political and economic relations, and a big economic package for the North, including increasing integration into the global economy. Only a major improvement in its overall situation might lead North Korea to consider some change in course and give up its nuclear weapons."

In its statements in the run-up to and following North Korea's missile test, the Obama administration has laid the foundation for solid coordination with allies in Japan and South Korea, although it remains to be seen to what extent and under what conditions the aggressive bilateral diplomatic approach Abramowitz advocates would retain support from allies. At this stage, there does not appear to be a great appetite among Washington-based analysts for high-level engagement of North Korea given the apparent self-confidence with which the North Koreans have tried to "lock in" their status as a nuclear weapons state. On the other hand, any strategy that allows the North Koreans to feel complacent that they have been successful in establishing a new status quo is not acceptable.

Although North Korea exploited international fissures by claiming that its test was a satellite launch and not a ballistic missile test, there is also an apparent convergence among North Korea's neighbors, especially as it relates to the importance of not accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. It is this convergence--and the need to show unity in the face of North Korea's test--that facilitated an agreement on a presidential statement at the United Nations. Now the question becomes whether the North will reject the statement's appeal for negotiations as it threatened in its March 26th statement--an action likely to further unify the world community and isolate the North--or whether in fact the six party talks can utilize the existing international consensus as an effective basis for pursuing real progress toward North Korea's denuclearization.

The opinions expressed in this article and the SitRep website are the author's own and do not reflect the view of

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