The Debate

North Korea Nuclear Test Drives Home Need for UN Reform

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The Debate

North Korea Nuclear Test Drives Home Need for UN Reform

In its current form, the United Nations has proven incapable of solving pressing security issues.

North Korea Nuclear Test Drives Home Need for UN Reform
Credit: Flickr/ sanjit

North Korea has done it again. In blatant and utter disregard for a series of resolutions passed by the United Nations Security Council imposing sanctions against Pyongyang for continuing its nuclear and missile development programs and  export of ballistic missile technology, North Korea detonated an underground nuclear bomb on September 9, the second such test conducted this year. North Korea has pushed all of North Asia into a maelstrom.

Sadly, the UN has once again failed to prevent North Korea from advancing its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Added to this, the country is headed by Kim Jong-un, a leader known for his eccentricity and idiosyncrasies. He has been accused of large scale human rights violations, including executing his detractors on a whim.

U.S. President Barack Obama recently warned North Korea to face consequences for disregarding UN resolutions, and threatened to impose fresh sanctions. His remarks were dismissed by North Korea as “laughable.” China, which is the biggest trading partner of North Korea, has also criticized Pyongyang for violating the moratorium imposed on its development of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, North Korea has even refused to listen to its counsel, knowing full well that China will not go the distance in imposing economic sanctions. China views North Korea as a perfect foil to South Korea, where the United States will soon deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to enhance South Korea’s military preparedness to counter any provocation by North Korea.

Both the United Nations and the United States are putting pressure on China to use its influence on North Korea to force Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. However, Beijing realizes that if it imposes sanctions against North Korea, it may trigger an imminent collapse of North Korea’s economy, as China is its largest source of oil, food, and arms. Further sanctions may lead to instability, forcing tens of thousands of North Koreans to flee to China.  It would be, therefore, unrealistic to expect China to completely sever its relations with North Korea.

The biggest challenge for the United Nations today is to explore ways to stop North Korea from violating its resolutions, as a nuclear North Korea has made all of North Asia volatile. It is for this reason that there is an urgent need to usher in reforms in the UN to make it more effective in dealing with various crises.

Unfortunately, the UN, as it stands today, seems totally incapable of reigning in rogue countries like North Korea, Iran, and others. There was a time, from the 1940s through the 1960s, when countries took the organization seriously, as they did not want issues concerning territorial disputes or human rights violations brought before the UN Security Council. Today, more and more countries are refusing to acknowledge its edicts, as they have realized that the UN has become a powerless organization unable to stop countries from excesses. Recent examples of the UN’s toothless state abound in the Middle East, Africa, and more egregiously in Crimea, which was annexed forcibly by Russia in 2014.

If the UN is to be reckoned as the force that its 50 years ago, some immediate reforms have to be made. Today, the five permanent members of the Security Council have a vice-like grip over the entire organization, as time and again they have successfully thwarted any UN actions by exercising their vetoes. There is, therefore, an urgent need to induct more members into the Security Council to break the monopoly of few countries. Secondly, in order to make the organization democratic, transparent, and accountable, the sole veto of current permanent members should give way to a consensus decision by the majority. This will empower the UN to take proper steps in deciding on matters relating to international security and peace.

Whilst addressing the UN General Assembly on the Russian annexation of Crimea, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko pointed out that the present veto system make it difficult for the organization to solve issues, especially relating to forcible annexation of territories like in Crimea. “In every democratic country, if someone stole your property, the independent court would restore justice, in order to protect the rights, and punish the offender,” Poroshenko said. “However, we must recognize that in the 21st century our Organization lacks an effective instrument to bring the aggressor-country to justice, which has stolen the territory of another sovereign state.

Another concern is that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are all among the seven largest arms exporting countries in the world. Their decisions are driven by self interest. One prime example, as discussed above, it China’s reluctance to rein in North Korea.

We must not forget that the UN has yeoman’s work in poverty alleviation, health, protection of children, and women’s empowerment. In addition, the UN has also regularly sent peacekeeping forces to war torn areas. It would therefore be unfair to discredit the organization.

In these troubled times, the world needs a strong UN that can play a constructive and effective role in ensuring peace and stability in conflict areas, and also build consensus among countries to work together in preventing the escalation of conflicts. It is for this reason that urgent reforms are required in the Security Council, both by increasing the membership and by doing away with the veto power of a few select countries. Instead, the UN should bring a consensus-based approach to dealing with the threats posed by countries like North Korea. If reforms are stalled by the present permanent members, it will only weaken the UN’s relevance, a prospect that must be avoided at all costs.

K.S. Venkatachalam is an independent columnist and political commentator and writes a regular column for many newspapers.