Australia is right to use its seat on the UN Security Council to push for a tough response to North Korea’s most recent act of military provocation. Pyongyang’s successful launch of the Unha-3 rocket on 12 December 2012 has profound implications for peace and stability in our region, creating exactly the kind of high level threat that the Security Council was set up to address. Yet, in the month since the launch, the body’s only action has been to issue a statement condemning the launch and promising consultations on the issue. This came eight months after an earlier, failed rocket launch prompted the Security Council to declare that it ‘deplored’ North Korea’s behavior and was determined to ‘take action accordingly in the event of a further launch or nuclear test by that country’. It’s high time that these words were translated into action, and Australia is now well-placed to try to make that happen, starting with this week’s first substantive Security Council meetings of 2013.
Although it requires urgent action, North Korea’s missile program doesn’t pose an immediate or direct threat to Australian territory. A report in The Australian described the December launch as ‘chilling’ because, theoretically, it puts parts of Australia within reach of a North Korean nuclear-armed missile. This is misleading, to say the least, because Pyongyang hasn’t yet developed a re-entry capability or a nuclear warhead that would be small enough to fit on top of a missile, and is likely still years away from such a capability. The December launch was significant on a technological level because it demonstrated a successful separation of a three-stage rocket—an important technological step in the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile, but certainly not the final step, and arguably not the most significant one in terms of advancing North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.
The reason Australia is right to push for a tough UN Security Council response to North Korea’s launch is not because it poses a direct threat to Australia, but because Pyongyang’s blatant defiance threatens its allies, flouts international law and norms, and adds to the growing strategic insecurities in an already volatile region. Northeast Asia’s potent combination of rapidly changing power dynamics, increasingly heated territorial disputes, unresolved conflicts, and underdeveloped security architecture puts it at higher risk of a regional military conflagration than any other region in the world, with the exception of the Middle East and South Asia. Under these conditions, the UN Security Council has a vital role to play in upholding international law and punishing states that violate it, and preventing the region erupting into the type of large-scale conflict that would result in appalling death and destruction. (And which, due to its alliance commitments, would likely embroil Australia.) Unfortunately, it is not difficult to imagine credible scenarios in which unbridled North Korean militarism could trigger such a war.
North Korea’s missile program also poses a serious threat to stability outside the Asia-Pacific—another reason why the Security Council needs to demonstrate its resolve. For years, missile technology transfers between North Korea and Iran are known to have taken place and, if the claims made by South Korean officials are correct, debris from the December launch points to closer collaboration than many previously realised. Amid the international outcry that followed events, Brigadier General Massoud Jazzayeri, a senior Iranian military official, praised North Korea’s achievement in comments reported by the semiofficial Fars News Agency. In particular, he expressed satisfaction that the United States had been unable to prevent the Pyongyang’s technological breakthrough, declaring that it provided proof that ‘independent countries, by self-confidence and perseverance, can quickly reach the height of self-sufficiency in science and technology’. Not surprisingly, these comments are fuelling fears of further missile proliferation, including the possibility that North Korea would be willing to sell its three-stage rocket technology to Iran and other interested countries, including Pakistan.
The most appropriate Security Council response to Pyongyang’s rocket launch would be to impose stronger sanctions or, failing that, take steps to extend existing sanctions resolutions and improve their implementation. This is likely to be Australia’s position during consultations in New York, attracting strong support from at least three of the five permanent members (the UK, US and France) and at least two other non-permanent members (South Korea and Luxembourg). However, this would not be enough to swing a vote in favour of a tough new sanctions resolution and, while careful diplomacy might succeed in winning additional support, getting a veto-wielding China on board is too much to hope for. This is because China has always been the biggest obstacle to appropriate action by the Security Council against North Korea: at times it has opposed sanctions altogether and on other occasions it has watered them down. Moreover, as the state with the most to offer in terms of imposing meaningful sanctions on its recalcitrant neighbour, it has failed to live up to international expectations. Although diplomats would be reluctant to be so frank, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that China pursues a deliberate strategy of neutering international measures that threaten to significantly weaken the Kim regime.
This begs an important question: in the face of Chinese foot-dragging, what can Australia and other concerned members of the Security Council do to address the North Korea problem? The answer is that Australia and its partners will no doubt have to settle for less than they are hoping for in Security Council consultations—it won’t solve the problem, but adding more North Korean entities to the sanctions list and increasing inspections of cargoes leaving North Korea would at least be steps in the right direction. Getting the Security Council to unite behind these steps would be an achievement. This will hardly be the ‘tough’ response that Pyongyang’s reckless behaviour deserves but, as frustrating as it often is, the reality is that UN diplomacy tends to result in lowest common denominator outcomes that need to be backed up with other unilateral, bilateral and multilateral measures.
Tanya Ogilvie-White is senior analyst in international strategy at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user petersnoopy.