UN Votes Won’t Slow North Korea's Nuclear Push

On Tuesday, Beijing voted in favor of a UN Security Council resolution condemning North Korea for the launch of its three-stage rocket last month, a step it has long been reluctant to take. But does it matter?

China had initially insisted that the Security Council rebuke Pyongyang only with a statement issued by its president. The council’s president issued a statement after the North’s previous test, in April last year, not a resolution as Washington and others wanted. A presidential statement carries far less weight than a formal resolution.

Beijing’s decision to go along with a resolution this time has been hailed as progress. As one Security Council diplomat told Reuters, “The Chinese move is significant.” Yes, it’s positive that China relented and agreed to a formal resolution rather than a presidential statement, but neither form of condemnation promises to change the North’s behavior. And while the proposed resolution extends the existing sanctions to other agencies, most notably North Korea’s space agency, no additional sanctions have been added.

Modest responses to the North’s provocations in the past decade have obviously been insufficient to alter the longstanding Kim regime’s uninterrupted pursuit of the capacity to wage intercontinental nuclear war. But now these modest responses are downright dangerous. In January 2011, then Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the North would, within five years, develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental US.

North Korea’s technicians have made significant advances since then, having inserted a satellite into a wobbly orbit last month. And Gates’s successor has just highlighted the dangers the Kim family regime poses to the American homeland. “Who the hell knows what they’re going to do from day to day?” said Leon Panetta last Thursday. “And right now, you know, North Korea just fired a missile. It’s an intercontinental ballistic missile, for God sakes. That means they have the capability to strike the United States.”

The Pentagon walked back that uncharacteristically undiplomatic statement, but Panetta’s remarks were in complete agreement with experts who maintain the North can now land a missile in Honolulu. Now, given North Korea’s steady progress over these years, as most recently evidenced by its December launch, it would be imprudent to deny that within a few short years, the North could have the capability to strike the continental US with accuracy.

And this brings us back to the urgency of stopping Pyongyang’s missile program. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has adopted the same approach as Bush and Clinton, that the world’s great powers, acting in concert, can solve the world’s great problems, and that China can be persuaded to disarm its only formal military ally, North Korea. 

The Chinese, unfortunately, are the Kim regime’s great enablers, continually backing these dangerous rogues with diplomatic, commercial, and military assistance. On the day of Panetta’s refreshingly candid remarks, the New York Times reported that the Korean People’s Army was moving its mobile launchers around the country, some carrying KN-08 missiles. Analysts believe the Times misidentified the missile, but few doubt that the mobile launchers are carrying something lethal.

China, in a clear violation of Security Council resolutions, transferred the mobile missile launchers, known as transporter-erector-launchers or TELs, to the North. By doing so, Beijing substantially enhanced Pyongyang’s capacity to conduct nuclear warfare. Its three-stage missiles are considerably more vulnerable to being destroyed when sitting on a launch pad than when the missiles are moving around the countryside, under cover of night or clouds on the backs of mobile launchers.

The dispersal of missile launchers is typically viewed as an indication that a nation could be preparing for war. No one believes the regime in Pyongyang is about to trigger Armageddon this week, but the movement of the TELs is a useful reminder that Washington has only a few short years to disarm North Korea before the threat grows considerably more urgent.

On Monday, President Obama praised multilateralism in his second inaugural address. Yet arguing over wording at the UN Security Council legitimizes a process that has not been effective and holds out no realistic prospect of disarming the Kim regime. This collaborative approach to security, unfortunately, has not slowed North Korea’s long, and thus far successful, march to having the capacity to strike American cities with nuclear warheads.


Photo Credit: David Guttenfelder

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