Theme: This analysis assesses whether the sanctions against North Korea approved recently by the United Nations Security Council are sufficient or not to substantially modify Pyongyang’s conduct and, ultimately, to force Kim Jong Il’s regime to relinquish the nuclear option. The analysis argues that they may well be insufficient, and that further measures are necessary, although in no case should these include military action.
Summary: The analysis first sets forth the causes and most likely consequences of the nuclear test performed by North Korea on 9 October. It goes on to assess whether the sanctions envisaged under UN Security Council Resolution 1718 will be enough to attain the objectives set by the Council. The analysis concludes that, although it should not be ruled out that North Korea might return to the negotiating table as a result of this Resolution, the current sanctions may well be insufficient to attaining this goal. Third, it argues that further coordinated measures are therefore necessary. In no case including military action, they should envisage both formal security guarantees for the Pyongyang regime and stricter sanctions by China and South Korea.
Analysis: The nuclear test performed by North Korea on 9 October triggered a swift response by the international community: Resolution 1718, approved unanimously by the United Nations Security Council on 14 October. It is widely known that the Resolution condemns the test, urges Pyongyang to refrain from making further shows of strength, to return to the six-way talks and to abandon its nuclear ambitions and, above all, it imposes a series of sanctions. These sanctions include an arms embargo (WMD and conventional weapons above a certain size) and confiscation of financial assets of persons or institutions linked to the weapons programmes, as well as banning foreign visits by senior representatives of the regime and the export of luxury goods. To apply the sanctions, the Council has asked members of the United Nations to inspect ships, aircraft and trucks travelling in or out of North Korea.
This analysis explains the context of the nuclear test, assesses whether the aforementioned sanctions will be sufficient, and argues that they probably will not, and that additional measures will therefore be required.
Causes and Consequences of the Nuclear Test
After a few initial uncertainties, it has now been confirmed that North Korea performed a nuclear test on 9 October. Apparently, the blast was surprisingly small (less than 1 kiloton, when India’s first test in May 1998 exceeded 30 kilotons), which might suggest that the test was a partial failure (and therefore that there might be another one soon). It also seems that the blast was a result of a plutonium bomb, a fact which would reveal that the country’s other nuclear programme (based on enriched uranium) is still not ready.
Pyongyang had repeatedly said that it might go ahead with a nuclear test in view of the aggressive attitude of the United States, in order to dissuade an eventual attack by Washington. This argument is clearly flawed. North Korea’s conventional forces (1.2 million soldiers, an extremely powerful artillery, hundreds of missiles and a substantial number of combat aircraft) as well as Seoul’s close proximity to the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas (and, therefore, to North Korea’s artillery) are more than sufficient dissuasive elements. Furthermore, the US armed forces are already overstretched and subject to excessive pressure, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Washington is therefore unlikely to have planned on opening another front on the Korean peninsula.
The main reason surely lies elsewhere: namely in the desire to intensify its nuclear blackmail in order to obtain a number of concessions from the international community. The chosen date was certainly no coincidence, since it happened as the same time as events such as the visit by Japan’s new Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, to Beijing and Seoul, and the appointment of a South Korean diplomat, Ban Ki-moon, as the new UN Secretary General and after the failure of the missile tests last July.
The main consequences of the test are certainly serious, since they do much to increase the risk of nuclear proliferation, whether intentional or not. On the one hand, the government or the army of North Korea (or uncontrolled elements of the regime) could transfer nuclear weapons, components thereof or nuclear technology to other countries or even to terrorist groups. North Korea’s track record in proliferation is not precisely comforting. It is known to have sold missiles, missile components and nuclear technology to countries like Iran, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Egypt and Pakistan, and it is thought to have supplied Libya with a small amount of enriched uranium. Besides, North Korea urgently needs foreign currency, among other reasons because US sanctions in the last few years (via the Illicit Activities Initiative) have affected, apparently quite considerably, what was until recently a lucrative illegal business of trafficking in drugs, counterfeit currency and smuggled goods. And early this year the United States imposed sanctions on a bank in Macao, accused of having accounts used to launder money from North Korea; naturally, the accounts were frozen.
Although there is no proof that this transfer of weapons and technology is actually happening, and despite the fact that experts think it is relatively unlikely, the extremely serious potential consequences of this activity have led Washington to consider this risk in a very serious way. Just two days after the nuclear test, President Bush issued a stark warning that the United States would not tolerate it: ‘the transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States and we would hold North Korea fully accountable for consequences of such action.’
Furthermore, a second consequence of the nuclear test is that it could have a domino effect in the region, leading to the nuclearisation of Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan. It is well known that there are a number of countries in the world which would be quick to join the club of the nine nuclear powers (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus India, Israel, Pakistan and now North Korea). According to the Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El Baradei, there are some 30 nations capable of manufacturing nuclear weapons in a short space of time. These certainly include the prosperous and technically advanced East Asian economies. In particular, the nuclearisation of Japan (or the mere fact that the nuclear option might move from being pure speculation to the arena of serious political debate) could unleash a tough response by China, especially now that Sino-Japanese rivalry has sharpened. It is true that the Japanese government’s official position is that it upholds the three principles of not manufacturing, owning or allowing on its territory nuclear weapons, and that the new Prime Minister Abe reiterated this position in the wake of the North Korean test. But it is no less true that prominent Japanese politicians do not rule out nuclearisation. For example, a senior figure in the Liberal Democratic Party, Shoichi Nagakawa, indicated after the North Korean test that Japan should discuss whether or not to arm with nuclear weapons and that doing so would afford the country the capacity to dissuade or respond. Furthermore, it is well known that Japan already has more than 40 tons of plutonium, which it currently uses to manufacture commercial energy, but which it could use to make more than 3,000 nuclear bombs.
Bilateral and Multilateral Sanctions
A few days after the test, Tokyo set its own sanctions: a ban on importing goods and on allowing the entry of North Korean ships and citizens. The impact of Japan’s sanctions is more symbolic than real, since in 2005 trade with Japan scarcely accounted for 5% of North Korea’s total trade. Australia has taken similar steps.
The United Nations Security Council sanctions are much more significant, because they oblige all UN member States to contribute to their enforcement.
However, whether or not they will be implemented to the letter remains to be seen. The reticence on the part of China and South Korea to implement the sanctions to the very last consequences, especially when related to transport interceptions and inspections, are highly significant. The recent visit by the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to the region does not seem to have served to iron out this reticence. For now, China has opposed the inspection of ships at sea. However, Beijing has started to pressure North Korea by reducing its oil and consumer goods exports somewhat, freezing some financial transfers from certain banks and inspecting trucks at the border town of Dandong. During the meeting between Tang Jiaxuan, a member of the State Council, and Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang on 19 October, China is reported to have threatened North Korea with a drastic cut in its oil deliveries, which account for 70% of its neighbour’s total consumption. On the other hand, Tang apparently obtained Kim’s promise that North Korea would not perform another nuclear test and that it would accept the 1992 Inter-Korean declaration on denuclearisation of the entire peninsula. There are even reports that Kim showed some remorse for the 9 October test.
As for South Korea, although it is re-assessing its cooperation projects with the North, everything suggests that it will maintain at least the two most important ones: the joint industrial zone of Kaesong and tours to the Mount Kumgang tourist resort. In particular, tourism to Mount Kumgang is a major source of income for North Korea, since 40,000 South Koreans visit it every month.
Furthermore, both China and South Korea have expressed reservations about participating fully in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a network set up by Washington and aimed at controlling trade in weapons of mass destruction and materials relating thereto. One of the most controversial aspects of the PSI is the interception and inspection of ships in international waters, which may even be questionable from a legal standpoint. Beijing and Seoul are unlikely to lift their objections to the PSI, especially on this issue, which could derive in aggressive reactions by North Korea.
China and South Korea are essential to any efficient sanction against Pyongyang, since these countries account for two-thirds of North Korea’s foreign trade (40% with China and 26% with South Korea). But neither Beijing nor Seoul want to heap too much pressure on Pyongyang. China does not want to trigger the regime’s collapse, which would mean it would have to deal with hundreds of thousands of refugees (it already had to deal with between 100,000 and 300,000 during the nineties) and it would lose a buffer between its north-eastern frontier and the US troops currently stationed south of parallel 38. As for South Korea, it also wishes to avoid a collapse of the regime, so as not to have to tackle a rushed reunification, and it wishes to maintain its economic influence in the North, perhaps to offset that of China, which is increasing.
However, even if the UN sanctions are applied in their entirety, it is doubtful that they would be efficient. They do not affect the country’s life support system, which comprises trade exchanges with China and South Korea and energy and food aid from Beijing and Seoul. Furthermore, North Korea is an isolated country (its foreign trade accounts for scarcely 15% of GDP) and it is used to being marginalised by the international community and to enduring extremely tough conditions for most of its population. Will a regime which allowed hundreds of thousands of people to die of starvation at the end of the nineties really be pressured by this kind of sanctions?
Indeed, the current sanctions could even be counterproductive. North Korea has always said it would consider international sanctions as an act of war. In the wake of Resolution 1718, Pyongyang’s official reaction was to accuse the Council of ‘gangsterism’ and of applying ‘double standards’ and the United States of ‘provocative acts’, which could be considered to be a ‘declaration of war’, to which it would have to respond.
Above and beyond this rhetoric, the former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, Nobel Peace laureate for his policy of rapprochement with the North, recently said that North Korea might respond militarily to the UN sanctions.
The Need for Further Measures
It is obvious –it is to be hoped that for the United States as well– that military measures must be ruled out. An invasion, an attack or ‘surgical’ bombings would unleash an immediate response from North Korea’s powerful war machine. After all, Seoul is within range of its artillery and Tokyo is vulnerable to its missiles. Furthermore, the exact location of the weapons and nuclear facilities is not known and there is the risk of radioactive leaks.
Additional non-military measures are necessary, provided they meet the requirement of obtaining the full backing of China and South Korea, exercise a significant influence on North Korea’s conduct and avoid, as far as possible, an aggressive reaction by Pyongyang.
China and South Korea should probably substantially reduce (although not eliminate completely) their trade with North Korea, as well as the energy and food aid which they provide. South Korea should provisionally suspend its activity in the Kaesong complex as well as tourist trips to Mount Kumgang.
At the same time, Washington should solemnly commit itself to neither invade nor attack North Korea, nor to try to trigger regime change in the country, and it should provisionally cancel some bilateral financial sanctions. In other words, the United States must abandon its clearly ill-advised strategy, mainly because it is based on an absurd ambiguity: since 2002 it has not been clear whether the Bush Administration wanted to negotiate with the current Pyongyang regime or whether, on the contrary, it sought to cause its collapse. Former President Carter went so far as to recently say that the Bush Administration is partly responsible for the North Korean nuclear test. William J. Perry, who was US Defense Secretary between 1994 and 1997, has talked of ‘a total failure’ of a policy consisting of ‘a strange combination of harsh rhetoric and inaction’.
Besides tougher sanctions and a shift in policy by the US, the international community should also offer Pyongyang a multilateral agreement which, based on simultaneous measures, might make North Korea resume the six-way talks, abandon nuclear weapons, freeze its nuclear programmes, allow inspectors back and dismantle its atomic facilities. All of this could be achieved in exchange for formal guarantees of security for the country and the regime, financial, food and energy aid, and diplomatic relations with the United States and Japan.
The aim of these new measures must be to enable North Korea to abandon the nuclear option. It is true that there are no precedents of a country which, having performed a nuclear test, relinquishes nuclear weaponry, but it is no less true that any other alternative would be truly dangerous for regional and global stability.
Conclusions: Although a more optimistic scenario might be possible, the sanctions approved by the UN Security Council on 14 October will probably be insufficient to make North Korea resume the six-way talks and abandon its nuclear programmes. There could even be a second nuclear test or further long-range missile tests, after the failed attempt in July 2006. The international community would see a second nuclear test as a belligerent and provocative response, and this could lead to military-type measures. In any event, a further nuclear test would generate a situation which would considerably increase the risk of miscalculations by both parties.
The international community must provide a different solution, based on more pressure by China and South Korea, a shift in strategy by the US and an offer of agreement based on the simultaneous implementation of measures.
If the conflict does not escalate, and in the absence of additional measures, the status quo will remain, namely relatively soft sanctions and the consolidation of North Korea as a nuclear State. This situation would be highly reminiscent of that of India and Pakistan after their tests in 1998. Will we end up definitively accepting North Korea as a new nuclear power? It is to be hoped that we will not, for the sake of the delicate strategic balance in East Asia and, by extension, the rest of the world.
Senior Analyst, Asia-Pacific, Elcano Royal Institute