[Editor's note: We gratefully acknowledge the special contribution of this paper,
courtesy of Larry Niksch to ICAS. sjk]
Responding to North Korea's Nuclear and Missile Test:
Ending the U.N. Security Council Pretense
Larry Niksch 1
Published by The Institute For Corean-American Studies, February 26, 2016
North Korea's Goal and Motives
Coming one month apart, North Korea's apparently successful nuclear and long-range
missile tests have reminded Americans that North Korea remains committed to the
objective that it proclaimed loudly in 2013: developing an intercontinental ballistic
missile and a nuclear warhead for that missile that could strike the United States. These
tests also indicate that North Korea is accelerating this program. Success within the
2018-2020 period seems to be a realistic prospect, though unwelcome.
The North Korean Government has several reasons and motives for this program and its
objective. The nuclear and missile successes extol the legitimacy of Kim Jong-un as he
imposes a Stalin-like tyranny over even his top military and civilian officials. The
program remains important to the credibility of the North Korean military leadership.
There also are the significant financial earnings of these programs, especially through
North Korea's nuclear and missile collaboration with Iran. Iran's willingness to increase
financial support for North Korea's nuclear and missile programs may grow with the
lifting of international sanctions against Iran and the resultant flow of billions of dollars
to the Iranian Government.
The North Korean leadership also likely sees a success of this program as giving it
strategic advantages on the Korean peninsula. One perceived advantage would be a
stronger position in negotiations with the United States. A direct nuclear threat toward
the United States would give North Korea new leverage in pressing its negotiating
demands, such as a bilateral U.S.-North Korean peace treaty to replace the 1953 Korean
armistice agreement, cessation of major U.S. military exercises in South Korea,
withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea, and U.S. recognition of North Korea as a
nuclear weapons power. A second perceived advantage would be an enlargement of
options for North Korea to institute military provocations against South Korea or even
Japan, using the threat of a nuclear attack on the United States to deter military retaliation
by the United States and its allies.
Response on the U.N. Security Council: "Round Up the Usual Suspects"
In the famous movie, Casablanca, one of the most memorable lines comes from Police
Inspector Louis Renault (played by Claude Rains). After he witnesses Rick Blaine
(Humphrey Bogart) shoot the German officer, he orders arriving policemen to "round up
the usual suspects." The movie ends with Renault walking arm-in-arm with Rick Blaine.
In short, he orders "round up the usual suspects, knowing that this will produce no
solution to the killing of the German but needing to establish a fašade of investigation.
The "usual" response of the United States and its allies to North Korean nuclear and
missile tests is to go to the United Nations Security Council and negotiate sanctions on
North Korea. Since the first North Korean nuclear test in October 2006, the Security
Council has passed several sets of sanctions. These have called on U.N. member states to
prohibit arms sales to North Korea, not allow North Korea to use their territories or
facilities to sell weapons of mass destruction to other countries, and limit the supply of
luxury goods to North Korea. Individual North Korean officials and organizations have
been sanctioned. After ten years, there is a near unanimous consensus that these
sanctions have been ineffective. North Korea has not been deterred from advancing its
nuclear and missile programs, including testing. The economic livelihood of North
Korea's communist elite, who live mostly in Pyongyang, has not been damaged.
In particular, it is recognized that China has not enforced most of the sanctions it agreed
to in Security Council resolutions. This is the case even though China usually succeeded
in limiting the scope of the sanctions authorized by the Security Council. The North
Korean elite continues to have ample access to luxury goods from China. The Chinese
Government takes a permissive attitude toward North Korea's use of China's
transportation and banking facilities to make deals with other countries for the
proliferation of North Korean arms, North Korean missiles, nuclear and missile
technology, and North Korean experts and advisors to these countries.
This has gone on for nearly ten years and at least five deliberations in the Security
Council. This process has come to the point of pretense, a charade in which the Security
Council member states resort to a redefining, amending, and modifying of existing
sanctions, knowing that the new versions will have no more effect on North Korea than
previous versions. By substituting "sanctions" for "suspects," the cycle in the U.N.
Security Council has become a "rounding up the usual sanctions."
The Obama Administration's Challenge: Breaking Out of the Cycle of Pretense
It seems to me that this is one challenge facing the United States now. Can the Obama
Administration or a new U.S. administration in 2017 develop a strategy and supporting
tactics that changes the nature of the "game" in the Security Council; a strategy that
opens up a better prospect of the Council enacting and implementing sanctions that put
real pressure on North Korea to alter is nuclear and missile programs?
The challenge is all the greater because North Korea is advancing and accelerating its
nuclear-long range missile program. And also because U.S. allies, South Korea and
Japan are demonstrating that they want a more determined and effective strategy toward
sanctions: South Korea's closing of the Kaesong industrial complex and Japan's ban on
North Korean ships entering Japanese ports.
A Target of Opportunity: North Korea's Energy Imports
A pointed breaking out of the cycle of pretense would be for the United States to
introduce a resolution in the Security Council mandating that all U.N. member countries
cease providing oil and natural gas to North Korea and not assist other states that seek to
provide North Korea with oil and natural gas. North Korea is totally dependent on
outside sources for its energy supplies, particularly oil. A U.N. mandated cutoff would
lead within months to severe shortages of gasoline in the North Korean military and
reductions in electricity output that would impact the elite in Pyongyang.
The problem, as every Korea watcher knows, is China. China supplies North Korea with
most of its oil. According to many past reports, the Bush and Obama administrations
have suggested in private conversations with the Chinese Government that it end oil
shipments to North Korea. The Chinese Government has rejected these suggestions.
Chinese oil continues to flow to North Korea. The flow has continued amidst repeated
Chinese government statements criticizing North Korea for its nuclear and missile tests.
There also are new reports that China might allow Iran to use Chinese facilities to ship
Iranian oil to North Korea, now that international sanctions on Iran have been lifted and
China is forging ahead with its own energy deals with Iran.
Forcing and Exposing a Fundamental Chinese Government Decision
A U.S. strategy in the Security Council to introduce a resolution targeting North Korea's
external sources of oil and natural gas would have as an immediate tactical goal forcing
the Chinese Government to make a fundamental choice regarding sanctions on North
Korea. Unlike the complexities of other sanctions (defining money laundering,
monitoring banks, defining "luxury goods," North Korean name changes of its sanctioned
companies, varieties of weapons, etc.), China's choice would be clear cut-stop oil
shipments or continue them. If China made such a fundamental decision support a U.S.
resolution, it would indicate a higher level Chinese commitment actually to implement a
cutoff. U.S. monitoring of Chinese implementation still would be necessary.
Most Korean experts, however, appear to believe that China would veto such a U.S.
resolution. This view is supported by China's statements after the January 6 North
Korean test. China urged all parties to exercise caution, not to inflame further the
situation, and resume negotiations. So, the chances of a veto would be over 50 percent.
However, there are tactics in presenting a U.S. resolution to the Chinese that might make
it more acceptable to Beijing. One would be for U.S. officials to deal directly with the
collapse issue, particularly China's reported fear that too much international pressure on
North Korea would bring about a collapse of the Pyongyang regime. U.S. officials would
state to Chinese counterparts that North Korean leaders are not the maniacs they often are
portrayed. Instead, North Korean leaders would make a rational decision in the face of
acute energy shortages, a decision to start making concessions on the nuclear and missile
issues rather than allow energy shortages to reach the point of producing an internal
Now, this would require U.S. officials and also the broader community of U.S. experts on
North Korea to stop talking about a "collapse" of the North Korean regime and "regime
change" in North Korea. Such talk no doubt has influenced Chinese fears and distrust of
U.S. policy. It needs to stop in order to bring about a more effective U.S. dialogue with
Tactically, a second U.S. position voiced to the Chinese would be that if China supported
the U.S. resolution in the Security Council, the United States immediately would
announce that it accepts China's long-standing proposal to resume six party talks. This
would be a major concession to China. U.S. officials could sweeten this offer by stating
to Chinese officials that in renewed six party talks, the United States would work with
China to develop common proposals to start resolving the issue of North Korea's nuclear
and missile programs.
An important addition to this U.S. strategy and tactics would be for the United States to
give major attention to Russia. U.S. officials should not assume that the Russian
Government merely would follow China's lead on policy toward North Korea. President
Putin clearly has his own agenda with the United States. This now could include a more
distinct policy toward the Korean peninsula. In short, do not ignore Russia.
Other U.S. Gains Even If China Vetoes
One likely view is that such a U.S. resolution followed by a Chinese veto would be a
dead end for U.S. strategy. However, it seems to me that there are other gains for the
United States even if China vetoed a U.S. resolution. Influencing China to change its
policy toward North Korea is a long term task for the United States. It may take a
number of years to accomplish. It will necessitate that Washington give high priority to
this goal in overall U.S. strategy toward North Korea.
A U.S. resolution, even if vetoed, would bring the U.S.-China discussions-debate over
North Korea out into the open. Until now, most of the discussions-debate has been
behind closed doors with only infrequent insights into the substance of the discussions.
The receptors of these insights have been largely American Korea watchers. The Chinese
public largely is uninformed about the positions of the Chinese Government in these
talks. This remains the situation even though a growing segment of informed Chinese
public opinion has turned critical of North Korea in response to the repeated nuclear and
missile tests. The influential, nationalist Chinese newspaper, Global Times
after the long-range missile test that Chinese elite and public opinion was turning critical
of North Korea and wanted China to "make Pyongyang feel pain for its obduracy."
this growing body of Chinese critics see and hear mainly the verbal criticisms of North
Korea coming from Chinese government officials. They apparently know little about the
multifaceted substantive support that China extends to North Korea.
An open debate between China and the United States over a U.S. resolution in the
Security Council would bring out to informed Chinese the issue of China's energy
subsidies to North Korea. If the debate also contained the U.S. incentives and
explanations to China discussed above, informed Chinese would gain a more accurate-
and possibly more appealing-knowledge of U.S. policy. The result would be a further
growth in Chinese opinion in favor of stronger Chinese penalties against North Korea.
Besides exposing informed Chinese opinion to a full debate between the Chinese and
U.S. governments and greater knowledge of Chinese government policy, a U.S.
resolution likely would bring about a more robust debate within the Chinese Government.
Even if Chinese government deliberations led to a decision to veto, the deliberations
possibly would produce more voices urging support for tougher measures against North
Korea, including a cut off of oil. Such a robust debate would set the stage for even more
far-reaching debates in response to future North Korean provocations-debates that could
set the stage for real changes in Chinese policy. That would be a significant second gain
for the United States
A third gain from a U.S. resolution would be the creation of a crucial test for China in its
relations with South Korea. South Korea and China have drawn closer together in recent
years. Their economic-trade relationship has grown considerably. They have shared
criticisms of Japan over the Japan history issue and Japan's more assertive defense
policy. At the behest of South Korea's President Park Geun-hye, China's President Xi
Jing-ping even has voiced support for Korean reunification.
Now, however, President Park has responded to the North Korean nuclear and missile
tests by closing down South Korean companies operating the Kaesong industrial complex
in North Korea. Kaesong long has been the most enduring symbol and hope for greater
North-South cooperation. The R.O.K. Government also has agreed to negotiations with
the United States over deployment in South Korea of the U.S. THAAD anti-missile
defense system. The rationale for the THAAD system is the estimated 200 North Korean
Nodong intermediate range missiles, for which North Korea has succeeded in developing
President Park previously had been reluctant to consider deployment
of the THAAD system, in part because China opposed deployment. But Pyongyang's
tests and the weak Chinese statements in response have changed South Korea's
A U.S. resolution to cut off North Korea's oil and natural gas imports thus would test
China's willingness to support South Korea's conviction that there should be heavier
penalties imposed on North Korea. China's interests in strengthening relations with
South Korea no doubt would be a factor in intensifying the debate in China over a U.S.
resolution and China's North Korea policy. China's decision would give South Korea a
clearer picture of the prospects and limits of future R.O.K.-China cooperation in dealing
with Pyongyang. South Korean officials and experts would gain a better perception of a
future strategy to influence Chinese policy.
Additional U.S. Measures If China Vetoes
A Chinese veto of a U.S. resolution to ban supplying North Korea with oil and natural
gas should not end this U.S. strategy. U.S. officials could initiate two post-veto tactics to
keep the issue before the Chinese Government. One would be to publicize the entire U.S.
dialogue with China over the resolution, including details of China's oil subsidies to
North Korea, the U.S. offer to return to six party talks and cooperate with China in
renewed talks, and the U.S. argument that North Korea would begin to make concessions
if it faced acute energy shortages. A second tactic would be to tell the Chinese that the
United States would reintroduce the resolution in the Security Council in response to the
next North Korean nuclear or long-range missile test; and if China again vetoed the
resolution, the United States would have no choice but to reveal publicly other elements
of Chinese support of North Korea.
A U.S. resolution would be different from "rounding up the usual suspects (ie,
sanctions)." It would be a specific, direct sanction that would not have to be reshuffled
and redefined every time the Security Council deals with a North Korean provocation. It
would end the pretense in the Security Council and compel both the U.S. and Chinese
governments to make fundamental decisions.
A Pessimistic Prospect
No optimism is justified over whether the Obama Administration or its successor will introduce this resolution in the Security Council when North Korea conducts new nuclear and long-range missile tests in the near future. The Obama Administration and its predecessor Bush Administration never have been willing to challenge China openly over Beijingĺs policy of non-enforcement and watering down of sanctions. There only have been U.S. quiet diplomatic overtures, which the Chinese Government has swatted away.
Thus, a safe, but unfortunate prospect is that North Korea will succeed in the 2018-2020 period in developing and deploying an intercontinental ballistic missile and a nuclear warhead for that missile that can reach Alaska, Hawaii, and likely the U.S. west coast, and, at the same time, expanding its stockpile of Nodong nuclear warheads targeted at South Korea and Japan.
This page last updated March 16, 2016 jdb
|1|| The author is a Fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies (ICAS). He also is a Senior Associate
with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He currently teaches a graduate course on East
Asian Security at George Washington University.|
|2|| See my testimony on North Korea-Iran strategic collaboration to the House Foreign Affairs Committee,
July 28, 2015.|
|3|| Larry A. Niksch, China's Policies toward North Korea's Nuclear and Missile Programs, International
Journal of Korean Unification Studies, 2015, Vol. 24, No.2. See the section "Where does China Fit in to
the Story of Growing North Korea-Iran Nuclear and Missile Collaboration?|
|4|| Quoted in: Simon Denyer, China expresses support for U.N. sanctions on North Korea that 'truly bite,'
Washington Post, February 16, 2016.|
|5|| See my testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on July 28 on North Korea-Iran nuclear
and missile collaboration in which I discuss the credible reports from 2013 on that North Korea has
succeeded in developing nuclear warheads for its Nodong missile.|