A North Korean Embarrassment

The Conference on Disarmament has done little to tackle the global nuclear threat. But North Korea as its president?

The Conference on Disarmament (CD) came into being in 1978 as the official UN body mandated to negotiate disarmament treaties. It exists as a 65-member organisation that works on the basis of consensus, meets several times a year – and achieves nothing. 

For the last decade or more now, indeed ever since the conclusion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996, the CD has had little to show for its existence. Issues related to fissile material cut-off, prevention of an arms race in outer space, negative security assurances and nuclear disarmament have all been on the radar of the CD through this period, but there never has been any consensus on the agenda that must be agreed upon by all nations at the start of the year. Consequently, every session ends up with the countries voicing great support for the negotiating body, and expressing a deep desire to move towards disarmament, but with no actual movement on the ground.

Frustration with the lack of progress in the CD has therefore been mounting, bringing the credibility of the institution into question. To further exacerbate the many difficulties plaguing the body, a new problem arose at the end of June. Following the tradition of alphabetical rotation of its chairmanship every two months, it was the turn of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to take over the presidency.  Stating that North Korea was ‘very much committed to the Conference,’ the country’s ambassador to the CD assumed the presidency on June 28.

Other countries have reacted to this development in two basic ways. While the United States has effectively made light of the matter, Canada has strongly registered its opposition to the very principle of North Korea holding the presidency, and is boycotting the CD for this period.

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There’s a bit of logic in both these positions. On the one hand, Canada is correct in questioning the assumption of the CD chairmanship by North Korea given that the country is under wide ranging sanctions for not only its own development of a nuclear weapon, but also for being a well-established nuclear proliferator. This, then obviously places a cloud over the very standing of the CD.  It sends a message to the rest of the international community, and especially the non-nuclear weapon states, that once nuclear weapons have been acquired, the country can get away with anything.

Just a few months before North Korea first tested its nuclear weapon in 2006, Christopher Hill, the US official handling the issue, categorically stated that his government would not live with a nuclear North Korea. Five years down the line, not only is the world resigned to living with a nuclear North Korea, but also apparently to having it as the president of the CD.  Is this not a travesty of sorts? Should it not be a matter of principle that a country that is not in good international standing should be denied such opportunities as a way of further sanctioning it? Such prestigious positions should only be granted when nations abide by the rules and norms of the game of international relations.

On the other hand, the US approach to dismiss this development as inconsequential also has some merit. After all, the CD has proved itself to be a dysfunctional body for so long that having North Korea in the chair for two months would matter little. In addition, blocking the assumption of the presidency by North Korea would have escalated the standoff with the country. After all, as an existing member of the CD, North Korea is perfectly within its rights to assume the presidency when its turn arrives. If countries had an objection to its being in the chair, they should have anticipated this event (which shouldn’t have been difficult) and taken steps to block it far ahead of time. Though it might have been impossible to change the principle of the alphabetical rotation of the presidency, it might have been possible to create an exception in this case on the basis that the country wasn’t in compliance with its international obligations and hence under sanctions for the same. This would have served as a precedent for the future, too, and deterred other countries from following the North Korean example.

Meanwhile, with the act done, perhaps this opportunity can be used to provide some positive reinforcement to North Korea’s behaviour by actually entrusting the nation with some responsibility.  A taste of success for an isolated country like North Korea could turn out to be akin to the tiger tasting blood. It might awaken within the country a desire to constructively engage with the international community and change its behaviour. We can but hope.