The United Nations Security Council received a briefing Wednesday on the recent “deeply troubling” developments concerning North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs from the UN’s Assistant Secretary-General for the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific, Khaled Khiari. He noted that North Korea has launched ballistic missiles or other projectiles thirteen times this year, including the late November launch of two projectiles. All such launches and testing are in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, he said. Signs of a rocket-engine test at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground were reported in the past few days, Mr. Khiari noted. North Korea has also refused to continue any meaningful dialogue with the United States and instead has issued increasingly hostile warnings.
U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft, who is serving as the president of the Security Council this month, called for Wednesday’s meeting on North Korea. The United States, she said, continues to keep the door open for negotiations. Although denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula remains the ultimate objective, she said that the U.S. would be “flexible” on how to get there. “We remain ready to take actions in parallel, and to simultaneously take concrete steps toward this agreement,” she said, without specifying what those steps would consist of. However, recent ballistic missile launches “risk closing the door on a better path for the future,” Ambassador Craft added. She warned that further provocations such as the testing of long-range missiles would be destabilizing. If North Korea chooses a path other than resumed dialogue, Ambassador Craft said, “we and this Security Council must be prepared to act accordingly.”
There appeared to be general unity among the Security Council members that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula remains the final goal of negotiations. The members were also united in urging a resumption of dialogue between the United States and North Korea, building on the progress that had been made during 2018 and earlier this year.
No Security Council member, including China and Russia, proposed a complete rollback of the stringent Security Council economic sanctions that have been imposed on North Korea in various resolutions and that remain in place. However, even though there is already a mechanism in the Security Council resolutions to carve out exceptions to the sanctions for humanitarian reasons on a case-by-case basis, they urged what China’s UN Ambassador Zhang Jun called “adjustments” to the sanctions measures to meet humanitarian and livelihood-related concerns.
Ambassador Jun claimed that China has “unfailingly and conscientiously performed its international obligations and sustained huge losses and tremendous pressures in the process of implementing the sanctions.” This assertion is demonstrably false. China and Russia, in that order, were identified as the two states with the highest number of alleged sanctions violations, according to data compiled by the United Nations Panel of Experts on North Korea for the reporting period February 2018-February 2019 and analyzed by the Institute for Science and International Security. “Russia and China are thwarting UNSC sanctions on North Korea with near impunity by operating black and grey market schemes to import or export coal, petroleum, and other goods,” the Institute concluded.
Both China and Russia sought to place more blame on the United States than on North Korea for the current deadlock in talks. “The DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] has taken a series of positive steps on denuclearization,” Chinese Ambassador Jun claimed in his remarks to the Security Council on Wednesday, “but its legitimate concerns and aspirations in respect of security and development have not been given such attention as is commensurate with its effort, and remain unanswered.” Russian Ambassador Vassily A. Nebenzia questioned how progress can be expected when North Korea is told to accept a full list of conditions in return for future benefits.
The facts, however, do not support Russia’s and China’s blame game.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on November 17th that the United States and South Korea have indefinitely postponed a joint military exercise in an “act of goodwill” toward North Korea. “I see this as a good-faith effort by the United States and the Republic of Korea to enable peace, to shape … to facilitate a political agreement — a deal, if you will — that leads to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” Secretary Esper told reporters. North Korea’s immediate response was complete defiance. It rejected further negotiations until the United States takes “a substantial step to make complete and irreversible withdrawal of the hostile policy toward” North Korea. On November
28th North Korea launched two rockets. On December 7th North Korea carried out what it described as a “very important test” at its long-range rocket launch site, which it has reportedly rebuilt after its partial dismantling when negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea were in their early stages. At around the same time, Kim Song, North Korea’s UN Ambassador, said in a statement: “We do not need to have lengthy talks with the U.S. now and the denuclearization is already gone out of the negotiation table. ”
During the last several years, Russia and China have proposed a freeze for freeze confidence- building arrangement. This proposal called for the U.S. to suspend joint military exercises with South Korea in exchange for North Korea’s suspension of further development and testing of nuclear arms and ballistic missiles. Recent actions and threats by North Korea show the futility in engaging North Korea this way in good faith. The U.S. announcement of an indefinite suspension of a joint military exercise was met with scorn, defiance, threats and more provocative launches on North Korea’s part.
Kim Jong-un’s regime is demanding major front-loaded sanctions relief before even engaging in any further negotiations. We have already seen how easily North Korea can reverse course and restore the one missile facility it had agreed to dismantle. Its word is literally not worth the paper it is written on. Therefore, only substantial, verifiable, and irreversible steps towards denuclearization would merit any “adjustment” of Security Council sanctions or of any sanctions imposed unilaterally by the United States.
Finally, we need to hold China’s and Russia’s feet to the fire so that they stop their evasive behavior and finally comply fully with their sanctions-related obligations under the relevant Security Council resolutions. Let us see as a first test whether Russia and China meet the Security Council’s December 22nd deadline for sending back all North Korean workers from their countries to North Korea. If they violate this obligation or any other Security Council sanctions measures, the United States and its allies must continue to document the violations for the world to see. The United States and its allies should also impose whatever domestic sanctions against the violating individuals and entities they deem appropriate.