UN Impotent As North Korean Nuclear Caravan Moves On – OpEd
By Thalif Deen and IDN
A 2.0 updated version of an old Middle Eastern proverb reads: The dogs bark, but the North Korean nuclear caravan continues to move on.
The intercontinental ballistic missiles arrive non-stop from an apparent North Korean assembly line. Every launch is followed by widespread criticisms.
But the North Koreans have little or no regard for these warnings and threats—with a business-as-usual response to the growing criticisms.
Shielded by Russia and China, two of the veto-wielding permanent members, the UN Security Council (UNSC) has remained ineffective and politically impotent.
A joint statement by ten countries—Albania, Ecuador, France, Japan, Malta, the Republic of Korea, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States—delivered on 17 April read: “Each and every one of the DPRK’s 17 ballistic missile launches this year is a blatant violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions”.
“Each and every launch poses a threat to the region. The testing of long-range ballistic missiles puts the entire world at risk,” the statement warned.
At a UNSC meeting on 17 April, US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said: “If it’s starting to feel like we’re here nearly every month, it’s because we are. Almost a month ago to the day, we met after the DPRK launched its second ICBM since the beginning of 2023. And today, we meet after the DPRK’s third ICBM launch this year, which comes on top of 14 other ballistic missile launches.”
The United States believes the UNSC has a responsibility to, once again, send this kind of strong, unified message. “And we believe this Council must do everything in its power to prevent the DPRK from carrying out future unlawful ballistic missile launches—or a seventh nuclear test.”
“But we remain deeply frustrated, as I know so many other Member States are, by continued inaction—inaction that is, quite simply, unacceptable. Inaction that undermines the credibility of this Council and the entire international non-proliferation regime.”
Hinting at Russia and China, she said the two Council members that are responsible for this inaction also continue to defend the DPRK’s behavior.
“Time and time again, these two Council members draw false equivalences between the DPRK’s unlawful ballistic missile launches and lawful, defensive, pre-announced US-ROK joint military exercises”.
But a simple review of the facts disproves this narrative, she argued. After all, by the time the United States and ROK resumed large-scale exercises in August of 2022, the DPRK had already launched 31 ballistic missiles—including six ICBM launches—and its efforts to reconstitute its nuclear test site were well underway.
The criticisms have also come from UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who “strongly condemned” the launch of yet another long-range ballistic missile by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Guterres reiterated his calls on the DPRK “to fully comply with its international obligations under all relevant Security Council resolutions, to reopen communication channels, and to resume dialogue leading to sustainable peace and the complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”.
But the North Koreans, who most likely will launch another missile next month, may continue their open defiance.
Kevin Martin, President of Peace Action and Peace Action Education Fund told IDN: “My general concern is the apparent lack of diplomatic engagement by the US and South Korea”.
Tensions are high in the region, with multiple causes, not just North Korea’s provocative missile tests, and denunciations by the US and others are clearly ineffective, he said.
“There may be discussions behind the scenes we are unaware of, but usually where there’s no smoke, there’s no fire”.
Why does the Biden Administration, with its veteran, accomplished diplomats, appear to be eschewing diplomacy with North Korea, China and others to address regional concerns? he asked
“Biden himself has said we need to move away from endless wars and gives lip service to the need for diplomacy, yet we don’t see it regarding North Korea, or Yemen, or Ukraine, or Israel and Palestine”.
“China helped bring about rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Turkey and others have tried to initiate diplomacy to end the war in Ukraine. Where is US leadership on diplomacy to resolve any of these dangerous conflicts?”
The Biden Administration, early on, extended New START with Russia, rejoined the UN Human Rights Council and re-affirmed support for the Paris Climate Accords. They were good, but relative layups, said Martin.
“What diplomatic achievements, or ben initiatives, have we seen since then? The US can’t single-handedly resolve all the world’s conflicts but is it even trying?” he asked.
According to a New York Times report on 17 April titled “North Korea Says it Launched a Solid-Fuel ICBM for the First Time”, “the last ballistic missile flew over northern Japan triggering alarms and prompting people there to seek cover”.
According to a government media report, quoted by the Times, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said he would create “a clearer security crisis“ for the US and its allies by escalating North Korea’s nuclear capabilities in the face of growing military cooperation between Washington and Seoul.
The Times also said a solid-fuel missile is easier to hide and transport, and it takes less time to prepare one for launch. That makes it harder to target in pre-emptive strikes than the North’s Hwasong-14,15 and 17 ICBM models, all of which use liquid propellants.
Meanwhile, said Martin, the US just flight-tested another Minuteman III missile, and allegedly is proceeding to flight testing the new Sentinel ICBM later this year.
“So, the US risks preaching temperance from a barstool in regards to ICBM flight tests. Instead, the US should try engaging North Korea in diplomacy, starting by freezing ICBM tests and decreasing or ceasing military exercises with South Korea and Japan, which North Korea understandably considers to be provocations”.
Perhaps the UN Secretary-General could play a facilitating role, though North Korea has long insisted on direct talks with the US, he added.
In his remarks to the UNSC on 17 April, Khaled Khiari, UN Assistant Secretary-General, Departments of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and Peace Operations, said the DPRK Foreign Ministry and Central Military Commission, the latter on 10 April, have warned of so-called “countermeasures” in response to military exercises in the region.
“Earlier today, the Marshal of the Korean People’s Army issued a statement opposing today’s meeting of the Council. The DPRK continues to implement its five-year military development plan unveiled during the 8th Party Congress in January 2021.”
That plan provided for the development of specific capabilities, many involving the DPRK pursuing its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes, in violation of the relevant Security Council resolutions, he pointed out.
“The DPRK claims to be hitting significant milestones on its five-year plan, including since our last briefing on 20 March. For example, the plan included developing a new solid propellant intercontinental-range ballistic missile”.
The DPRK reportedly achieved this with the launch on 13 April. It should be recalled that the relevant resolutions of the Security Council ban “any launch using ballistic missile technology”.
That plan, he said, also provided for the development of multiple warheads; tactical nuclear weapons; a military reconnaissance satellite; new unmanned aerial systems; and a “hypersonic gliding flight warhead”.
In line with its five-year plan, the DPRK greatly increased its missile launch activities in 2022 and 2023, including more than 80 launches using ballistic missile technology, Khiari told delegates.
The DPRK characterized these launches as involving systems with nuclear weapon roles, including so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons. Most of the systems it tested are capable of striking countries in the immediate region, he declared.
Thalif Deen, author of the book “No Comment – and Don’t Quote Me on That,” is Editor-at-Large at the Berlin-based IDN, an ex-UN staffer and a former member of the Sri Lanka delegation to the UN General Assembly sessions. A Fulbright scholar with a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Columbia University, New York, he shared the gold medal twice (2012-2013) for excellence in UN reporting awarded by the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA).