Once again North Korea has thumbed its nose at the international community, including its ally China, by confirming on Tuesday (February 12th) that it had conducted its third and most powerful nuclear test.
"A third nuclear test has been successfully staged," the North's state-run Korean Central News agency said. "The nuclear test was conducted as part of measures to protect our national security and sovereignty against the reckless hostility of the United States that violated our republic's right for a peaceful satellite launch."
In response, the United Nations Security Council met in an emergency closed consultation session Tuesday morning. Its rotating presidency this month just happens to be filled by South Korea, no doubt one of the reasons that North Korea chose this particular month to conduct its latest test.
Approximately two hours after the closed session began, South Korea's Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Kim Sung-hwan emerged from the Security Council chamber to read the following press statement to reporters:
"The members of the Security Council held urgent consultations to address the serious situation arising from the nuclear test conducted by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
The members of the Security Council strongly condemned this test, which is a grave violation of Security Council resolution 1718(2006), 1874(2009) and 2087(2013), and therefore there continues to exist a clear threat to international peace and security.
The members of the Security Council recalled that in January they unanimously adopted resolution 2087, which expressed the Council’s determination to take “significant action” in the event of a further DPRK nuclear test.
In line with this commitment and the gravity of this violation, the members of the Security Council will begin work immediately on appropriate measures in a Security Council resolution."
Thus, in a situation crying out for immediate "significant action," the Security Council punted with a statement of condemnation and the promise to "begin work" on yet another Security Council resolution for North Korea to disregard. When I asked Foreign Minister Sung-hwan the target time for completion of the resolution and its passage, he would not say other than to note that work in the Security Council has just started.
The United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice followed Mr. Sung-hwan to the podium. She said that North Korea's "highly provocative nuclear test" directly violates its obligations under several unanimous Security Council resolutions. "North Korea’s continued work on its nuclear and missile programs seriously undermines regional and international peace and security and threatens the security of a number of countries, including the United States," she said.
Ambassador Rice would not specify the additional measures against North Korea that she said the Security Council would consider. However, with her customary show of steely determination, she vowed that what the Council will be discussing "will not only tighten the existing measures but—we aim to augment the sanctions regime that is already quite strong." When asked whether such measures would include sanctions on financial institutions, she replied that "those categories are areas that we think are ripe for appropriate further action."
Kim Jong-un, North Korea's young leader who succeeded his father as dictator of the rogue state, is trying to prove his mettle with his military, which holds the real power in North Korea. He has engaged in a series of provocative actions leading up to the latest nuclear test, including a rocket launch testing North Korea's ballistic missile technology that led to the last Security Council resolution in January and an incendiary video portraying a nuclear attack on the United States.
Raising the stakes further, North Korea's most powerful military body, the National Defense Commission, warned that its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs were targeted at the United States.
Realistically, there is little the United Nations can do that would have any material impact on North Korea's military strategy. North Korea has such little respect for the United Nations that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon - who voiced his own condemnation of the latest test - admitted that North Korea's leadership won't even take his phone calls.
In concert with its would-be nuclear arms mate Iran, which has weathered enormous economic pain to pursue its ambitions, North Korea will continue to push the boundaries of its own nuclear and ballistic missiles capabilities irrespective of any new UN sanctions.
China is the only country with the leverage to possibly make some headway. It could threaten to cut off the supply of oil to North Korea, for example, which would cripple North Korea's military and economic development unless it could somehow get oil from Iran.
China did once briefly cut off the supply of oil to North Korea ten years ago. And China has expressed its "firm opposition" to North Korea's latest nuclear test, siding with the "widespread opposition from the international community." However, while China may be inclined to go along with more financial sanctions through the Security Council, which will have only a minor incremental impact on North Korea, it is not likely to take any significant extra steps on its own to strangle North Korea's economy for fear of the destabilizing effects of such actions, including a mass movement of refugees from North Korea into China.
We can expect a lot of fanfare in the coming days or weeks as the Security Council ends up finally producing a more toughly worded unanimous resolution with some enhanced sanctions. But, to quote William Shakespeare, it will be "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
Iran is watching how President Obama reacts to North Korea's latest provocation. Will he hide behind the United Nations curtain and continue to push for world-wide nuclear disarmament, or will he finally confront the rogue nations whose possession of nuclear arms poses a danger to all of humanity?
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