Showdown looms as UN Security Council sanctions North Korea

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — The UN Security Council has tightened the economic sanctions noose on North Korea in response to the Pyongyang regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile proliferation.

The fifteen member Council voted unanimously to slam a wide range of economic, scientific and trade bans on the reclusive communist country in direct response to North Korea’s fourth nuclear weapons test and a ballistic missile launch earlier this year.

U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power called the resolution “a major upgrade” to a plethora of existing sanctions slapped on North Korea over the past few years. Amb. Power stated, that the sanctions would “send an unambiguous and unyielding message to the DPRK regime, the world would not accept your proliferation.”

South Korean broadcast shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in Seoul, on March 4, 2016.
South Korean broadcast shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in Seoul, on March 4, 2016.

The resolution came after intense behind the scenes negotiations especially among the United States, China, Japan and Russia since the North Koreans tested what they claimed was an H bomb in early January.

Though the People’s Republic of China has long served as a political enabler for the DPRK, the stark reality has evolved where Beijing is increasingly concerned about the “loose cannon nature” of the current rule of Kim Jong-Un. Importantly Amb. Power stated, “China’s agreement to support additional UN sanctions sends a strong message to North Korea that it cannot count on Beijing to shield it from the costs of flouting international law.”

But Beijing’s diplomatic support comes with a price. Though China is deeply distressed over the growing instability in neighboring North Korea, the PRC is equally concerned over American plans to safeguard South Korea and adjacent regions with a new missile defense program. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense ( THAAD) program could neutralize the nascent North Korean short and mid range missile advantage over South Korea and equally protect U.S. military base facilities in Japan and Guam island.

Though the PRC was ideologically linked to North Korea since the Korean war, since the 1990’s Mainland China has opened significant commercial ties with South Korea to the point where as of the last decade, China has become capitalist South Korea’s largest trading partner. Part of the deal for getting Beijing to support the resolution may be ceding to PRC political pressure on South Korea not to accept, or at least significantly delay, American THAAD missile batteries. China claims the defensive system is a regional threat.

The PRC still views North Korea, though a rogue regime, as a vital buffer state between the Chinese Mainland and American-influence in free South Korea.

Over the past decade, the Security Council has adopted four resolutions concerning North Korea’s widening nuclear proliferation; most of the provisions had significant loopholes or were hampered by sloppy or selective enforcement.

But as Japan’s Ambassador Motohide Yoshikawa stated, “Resolutions and sanctions are effective only when implemented. Therefore what we have achieved is not the end but the beginning.” Implementation and enforcement of the economic embargo will prove challenging.

New Zealand’s deputy Amb. Carolyn Schwalger stated that North Korea will not “benefit from its provocative and combative behavior, and that the best path available to it is to a return, in good faith, to negotiations on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

The new resolution #2270 which runs 19 pages, includes an exhaustive list of embargoed materials and their transport which involve travel bans on individuals, asset freezes on banks, and surveillance of ships. North Korean raw material exports such as gold and rare earth are proscribed. Significantly, there’s no sanction on humanitarian aid to the impoverished communist country, according to diplomats.

Japan’s role in framing the resolution was significant as the Japanese home islands face a clear and present danger from North Korea’s unpredictable nuclear ambitions.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon advised that “the firm response by the Security Council should put an end to the cycle of provocation and lead to the resumption of dialogue…to reduce tensions and achieve the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

When asked whether the new sanctions are an end in themselves, Angola’s Amb. Ismael Martins who is serving as the Council’s President for March, told this writer that he encourages “the resumption of the Six Party Talks” the multinational negotiating formula which could lead to the long elusive political solution. The talks, dormant during the Obama Administration, allow for transparency in dealing with the DPRK.

Not surprisingly, DPRK Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un, has bombastically reacted to the resolution by proclaiming that his country’s nuclear weapons should be ready for use “at any time.”

A showdown may well be looming.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014).