Some of us, of course, have never really believed that the United Nations could play much of a useful role in restraining North Korea anyway, other than helping us enlist the support of Old Europe, which is almost alone in paying any heed to the U.N. After all, the institution is led by Ban Ki-Moon, who rose from local obscurity to international obscurity by appeasing Kim Jong Il, and who, by all outward appearances, suffers from a genetic testosterone deficiency. If Ban isn’t an outright tool of the Chinese, he’s functionally indistinguishable from one. This doesn’t mean the United States lacks options, as conventional wisdom often suggests. As I’ve laid out in great detail, we have yet to unloose Treasury and Justice to go after North Korea’s enablers — Chinese enablers included — and credibly threaten to block their assets under existing anti-money laundering and anti-proliferation authorities. This isn’t to suggest that the alternative is dreaded unilateralism; it just means that the only effective multilateral institutions must be those where China lacks a veto. Two excellent examples include the Financial Action Task Force and the Proliferation Security Initiative, which work because responsible governments everywhere enforce their core principles.
To get to the point of going around the U.N., however, the Obama Administration will first have to grasp the basic truth that China will continue to block all effective action there. In fact, China has been undermining U.N. sanctions against North Korea for years. Worse, it has also helped North Korea to acquire and sell key WMD components and technologies, voting for U.N. resolutions against North Korea while under international pressure, and then undermining those very resolutions. By all accounts, it continues to undermine UNSCR 1874 to this day, with respect to anti-proliferation measures and its luxury goods ban (see here, here, here, and here for just some examples of this).
China’s uninterrupted shielding of Kim Jong Il from post-Cheonan consequences has angered the South Korean government, and may also have shifted the thinking of a critical mass of American opinion about China’s intentions. Here’s SecDef Robert “Not Going to Buy the Same Horse Twice” Gates, speaking at an international security forum in Singapore:
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates challenged China to deal realistically with the short-term question of how to respond to an antagonistic North Korea and the longer-term issue of whether Beijing’s expanding military can establish more durable ties with the U.S. Asian nations cannot stand by in the face of North Korea’s alleged sinking of a South Korean warship, Gates said during an international security summit Saturday that was dominated by questions about the North.
“To do nothing would set the wrong precedent,” Gates said. [AP, Anne Gearan]
Meanwhile, China shows signs of further expanding its trade with North Korea, effectively undermining the economic pressure mandated by U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874. Yes, I suspect that China is mildly embarrassed by North Korea’s behavior, but it’s still not prepared to impose any consequences on the North for the most brazen act of war since the
Korean War Blue House Raid Rangoon Bombing KAL Bombing. It gets worse:
Over the last several years, China has given North Korean government officials jewels and precious stones worth $4 million, perfume and cosmetics worth $4.7 million, furs valued at $3.8 million as well alcohol and tobacco products worth $44 million, all in direct violation of a 2006 United Nations Security Council sanction China voted to approve.
The world is trying to determine how to punish North Korea for sinking a South Korean warship last month, killing 46 sailors. But all will be for naught as long as China continues serving as North Korea’s enabler. Along with those luxury goods, China also provides nearly all of North Korea’s fuel and more food than anyone else — $2 billion in declared aid each year and far more provided under the table.
There comes a point at which soft diplomacy isn’t smart diplomacy; it’s just plain dangerous to let believe believe that there’s no deterrent.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spent much of the last 10 days urging China to condemn the naval attack. China is resisting. But that’s a hollow exercise. China did criticize North Korea after its first nuclear-weapons test, in 2006. What did that accomplish? China shipped 20 percent more caviar to Kim Jong-il the next year, and North Korea tested another nuclear weapon in 2009. [….]
We can legitimately ask why China holds up a regime that allows its economy to remain in such “dire straits” that “a considerable share of the population is on the edge of starvation,” as a Congressional Research Service report puts it. Meantime, China feeds the political and military elite cigarettes, jewels, perfume and yachts.
Government and NGO reports from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan detail China’s luxury-good exports and show they actually increased by 40 percent in the year after the first nuclear-weapon test. The Congressional report says most of the luxury items “come into North Korea largely cost-free.” If anyone is to blame for North Korea’s renegade behavior, and the misery of its people, it is China.
UNICEF reports almost half of North Korea’s children are so malnourished they grow up stunted, both physically and mentally. The problem is irreversible and so prevalent the military had to lower its height requirement for new troops, to meet its recruiting goals. The average height for a 17-year-old boy now is 5 feet.
During the 1990s, as many as 2 million people starved to death. [McClatchey, Joel Brinkley]
John Feffer and Christine Ahn were not available for comment. Fortunately, Gates is showing signs that he gets this.
Washington is “assessing additional options to hold North Korea accountable,” apart from the UN Security Council route and planned military exercises with South Korea, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in Singapore. He did not specify what the new measures might be but, in an apparent message to China, warned of the risks of inaction after North Korea’s alleged torpedo attack on the ship in March which killed 46 South Korean sailors. [….]
Gates said the sinking, which an international investigation blamed on Pyongyang, was not an isolated incident but “part of a larger pattern of provocative and reckless behaviour” by the North. The Pentagon chief, speaking at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue on Asian security, called on countries in the region to respond to North Korea’s “dangerous provocations”. “Inaction would amount to an abdication of our collective responsibility to protect the peace and reinforce stability in Asia,” he said.
His remarks appeared aimed at China, an ally of North Korea that was slow to react to the incident and has yet to accuse Pyongyang of sinking the Cheonan. Gates pledged “full support” to South Korea at a “difficult hour” but avoided talk of any US or allied military response. [AFP]
Meanwhile, South Korea is now hinting that it may seek a toothless “Security Council letter” instead of a Security Council resolution. Whether that has to do with China’s obstruction, domestic politics, or both isn’t clear. Cue the video!
The effect will be to further weaken an already weak South Korean response, unless South Korea and the United States have in mind other ways to attack Kim Jong Il’s palace economy and undermine his internal political control.
What this means is that North Korea and China have effectively transformed the U.N. into an obstacle to the preservation and peace and the prevention of proliferation. That means that if we mean to accomplish those objectives, there’s no time to lose in going around the United Nations in the pursuit of effective action. And it would be one of history’s wonderful ironies if Nobel Laureate Barack Obama proves himself to be the man who finally has the backbone to do it.