The North Korea crisis now shifts to the United Nations. The hope is that the “international community” will show forcefulness it has lacked, imposing tough sanctions. The pending appointment of former South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon as U.N. secretary-general is seen by some as an auspicious development.
We’ll see if anything changes though. More likely, it will be business as usual at the U.N., to North Korea’s advantage. The better policy will come through the U.S. working with like-minded countries, chiefly Japan.
To date, the U.N. has treaded water on North Korea’s nuclear proliferation. In 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. No U.N. response. In July, North Korean missile tests generated weak resolutions and empty rhetoric.
Some believe Ban Ki-moon will make a difference. The Security Council approved him Monday to succeed Secretary-General Kofi Annan next year. But Mr. Ban’s experience dealing with Pyongyang should not be confused with effectiveness.
Mr. Ban has been the point man of the “sunshine,” or engagement policy of South Korea, which includes strongly discounting of North Koreans’ human-rights plight. “Sunshine” also includes large-scale South Korean investments in the North, including the Kaesong “industrial complex,” which essentially employs slave labor and generates revenue for the North Korean government to build missiles and bombs. Mr. Ban’s knowledge of North Korea shouldn’t be confused with wisdom.
Nothing suggests that Mr. Ban, even if so inclined, has the force needed to forge anything more than a lowest-common-denominator approach to North Korea.
This career diplomat is known in South Korea for never saying much of anything. He is the quintessential “consensus candidate.” Even the North Korean representative to the U.N. didn’t object to his candidacy. Prior to the nuclear test, Mr. Ban seemed content to continue South Korea’s almost unconditional engagement with North Korea.
Even an inspired secretary- general would hit the inherent limits of the United Nations. Americans have long held unrealistic expectations of the U.N. High-minded rhetoric aside, the U.N. is no more than the sum of its parts. In the case of North Korea, as with many crises, the parts have different interests. Rarely do they mesh together for an effective “international community” policy.
The U.S. should work primarily with like-minded countries, chiefly Japan. Thirty thousand American troops are stationed in South Korea and the U.S. has been committed to its defense since the Korean War, a commitment that should stand. But a variety of cultural, political and economic reasons have left many South Koreans more inclined to blame the North Korean crisis on President Bush than Kim Jong-il. That’s fact, much as officialdom in Washington and Seoul deny it.
Nothing suggests a rethink of “Sunshine” will occur in Seoul. Japan has a more level-headed approach to Pyongyang, and will be a more willing partner in ratcheting up pressure. Several proposals coming out of Tokyo exceed those coming out of Washington.
Even China might cooperate, though more likely behind the scenes. China doesn’t want to see Japan, South Korea or Taiwan develop nuclear weapons in response. What had been a theoretical possibility of a nuclear-armed North Korea now is reality. Beijing has cooperated to some extent with the crackdown on North Korea’s dollar counterfeiting. Beijing might be more willing now to pressure its longstanding North Korean ally for the sake of its regional strategic pre-eminence.
The U.S. could use some help from China with the Proliferation Security Initiative. This low-key administration initiative, which has the U.N.’s blessing, has been interdicting illegal shipments of missiles and nuclear technology on the high seas. It seized nuclear material headed to Libya, prodding Col. Moammar Gadhafi to give up his nuclear program. North Korean shipments have been interdicted. PSI activities should be intensified to keep Pyongyang from selling its nuclear and missile technology on the international market.
The “freedom agenda” for North Korea should be intensified. Radio broadcasts explaining to North Koreans the terrible economic and human-rights conditions they endure should be expanded, and the plight of the hundreds of thousands of North Koreans who flee their country should be advertised. The South Korean soft-pedal approach to human rights — including abstaining from critical U.N. resolutions — has wasted years in which political change could have been vigorously pressed in North Korea.
No matter who is in charge, the world body is limited when facing critical security issues. The key is working with countries capable of understanding the threat of the North Korean nuclear program, while politely telling those who don’t that the old policies have run their course.
Ed Royce, California Republican, is chairman of the House of Representatives International Relations Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation.