UN Sanctions Hit North Korea…Again

Is North Korea’s latest round of brinksmanship going to far?

The unanimous passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2094 builds on prior UN Security Council resolutions 1695, 1718, 1874, and 2087 in opposing North Korea’s drive to expand its nuclear and missile delivery capabilities. Each of the UN Security Council resolutions were passed following North Korean long-range rocket launches or nuclear tests.  These resolutions were designed to cut off flows of nuclear and missile technologies between North Korea and the outside world and to signal international disapproval of North Korea’s nuclear-related activities.

The latest resolution is notable for authorizing states to enforce a combination of financial measures against North Korea that attempt to cut off a wide range of financing vehicles related to North Korean nuclear and missile-related activities, including by blocking North Korean officials from carrying “bulk cash” payments related to those programs.  These measures complement the call in previous resolutions for member states to enforce strict inspections on suspected North Korean cargo related to the nuclear and missile programs.  The outstanding question, of course, is whether member states, including China, are prepared to implement these new measures, or whether they will be subjected to a combination of strict interpretations and “willful blindness” on the docks that would render the new measures ineffective.

Thus far, North Korean leaders haven’t taken the hint from previous UN Security Council resolutions, instead doubling-down on defiance and confrontation. In a statement released hours prior to the passage of the resolution, a spokesperson for North Korea’s foreign ministry stated that “as long as the United States is attempting to light the fuse of a nuclear war, our revolutionary armed forces will exercise the right to carry out preemptive nuclear strikes on the strongholds of the aggressors in order to defend the supreme interest of the country” and pledged to “hasten second and third countermeasures of higher intensity that we had already declared.”  Clearly, we are still on a cycle of escalation that could risk North Korea’s survival and would carry extraordinarily high costs for South Korea and the international community.

Before North Korean authorities get too carried away in righteous indignation that the UN Security Council or the United States is pursuing a “hostile policy” designed to stifle North Korea’s rights to exploration of space or science, it is worth noting that once again, the latest UNSC resolution includes an escape clause in that it “reaffirms its support to the Six Party Talks, calls for their resumption, urges all the participants to intensify their efforts on the full and expeditious implementation of the 19 September 2005 [Six Party Talks] Joint Statement.” Likewise, the Obama administration has taken great pains to keep the door open to North Korea’s return to the principles contained in the Leap Day understandings announced in parallel statements on February 29, 2012.

This means that all the measures authorized in UN Security Council resolutions against North Korea remain tactical, designed to deter and punish North Korea for moving in directions that endanger the international interest, not strategic, designed to stifle or end the North Korean regime.  However, as can be seen from this week’s House International Relations Committee hearing, each new North Korean provocation is providing momentum for those who do argue for a “hostile policy” toward North Korea’s leadership, designed to bring about regime change as the only way of finally solving the problem of North Korea’s nuclear defiance. North Korea’s actions seem also to have driven South Korea to adopt a more forceful counter-provocation plan, which now entails striking in addition to the origin and supporting forces of any provocation, North Korea’s command leadership as well.

North Korea’s leadership has long practiced the art of brinkmanship as a tactic that has enabled regime survival in the post-cold war era, but these tactics may well work to North Korea’s strategic disadvantage if the leadership turns a deaf ear to the international community’s frustrations and the UNSC resolutions are vigorously implemented by all member states.

Scott A. Snyder is senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was previously a senior associate in the international relations program of The Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.