Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Yet Another Test That the UN Will Fail

While many people have argued that the US should destroy the "satellite" that is about to be launched by North Korea, the Obama administration has backed away from any kind of aggressive position on the impending test. Rather, an anonymous US official at the G-20 summit stated today that the US will respond to any kind of launch by referring the matter to the UN. UN Security Council resolution 1718, passed in the wake of the North Korean nuclear "test" in October 2006, states that the North Korean nuclear program represents a "clear threat to international peace and security" and demands that North Korea not test any ballistic missiles and "suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme and in this context re-establish its pre-existing commitments to a moratorium on missile launching." Even if, as North Korea claims, the impending launch is a satellite and not a ballistic missile, the technologies are so similar as to render the distinction meaningless and violate the resolution.

But what will happen if and when the US refers the matter to the UNSC? Most likely, not much. The UN may indeed pass more sanctions (1718 imposed a wide sanction regime, including bans on arms sales and luxury items), but past sanctions have seemed to have little effect on North Korea's behavior. Anything more serious than sanctions is likely to draw a Chinese veto.

The international community, and China in particular, should be very wary about obstructing the work of the UNSC or failing to seriously punish North Korea for it violation. The decision by the Obama administration to act through the offices of the UN rather than taking matters into its own hands represents a complete 180 from the policies of the Bush administration that have been so widely and roundly criticized. But if the UN fails to take meaningful action, why would the US continue to refer issues of national security to an impotent body? China has already proved willing to punish North Korea for such flagrant violations of international law and norms; China did vote for resolution 1718. If China, Russia, and the other members of the UN truly wish to see the US restrain itself, follow international law, and respect the UN, the Security Council, and other international institutions, those institutions must demonstrate the ability to deal with security issues such as North Korea, a relatively easy case given the coincidence of interests between the major players (no one, especially not China, wants to see a nuclear DPRK).

However, short-term political points scoring usually outweighs long-term strategies. The UN will, most likely, fail to respond to the North Korean test in any kind of meaningful way, leaving President Obama with exactly the same problem President Bush faced when considering what to do about Iraq.