[OVERSEAS VIEW]Missed opportunities over missile launchUNSC Resolution 1695 condemning North Korea’s provocative missile launches passed unanimously while world leaders were attending the G-8 summit and disregarding North Korea’s claims about its sovereign rights to launch. China and Russia signed on to a surprisingly strongly worded resolution after language was excluded that would have allowed countries to take military action to enforce the resolution, under the Chapter 7 provisions of the UN Charter. The resolution is the newest phase in the ongoing test of wills between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) and the United States.
The UN resolution encourages individual states to enforce sanctions on the transfer of nuclear or missile-related technology to North Korea while urging the North Koreans to return to six-party talks. But even if the six-party talks resume, that six-party mechanism by itself might not be enough to lower the prospects of conflict following North Korea’s promise to take “stronger physical actions” to deter against enemy attack. The Bush administration’s core strategy remains containing North Korea and using North Korea’s own actions to reinforce its self-isolation.
The administration built a coalition in advance of the missile launches to warn North Korea that missile tests would have consequences. It has used those tests to mobilize international action against North Korea.
This strategy requires continuous efforts to enhance Pyongyang’s isolation through coalition-building designed to force North Korea to make a “strategic decision” to return to the six-party talks and pursue denuclearization in exchange for the normalization of relations with other countries. The administration has attempted to frame issues such as counterfeiting, missile launching, human rights and nuclear proliferation as choices for South Korea and China: whether to stand with the international community or with North Korea.
North Korea has tried to exploit fissures among major powers through the missile tests. At first, the tests promoted fragmentation between the United States and China, the United States and South Korea and South Korea and Japan. The swift passage of the UN resolution suggests that North Korea’s attempt to drive a wedge among outside parties failed in all cases, with the possible exception of South Korea.
President Roh’s prolonged silence regarding the North Korean tests and his outburst of frustration against Japan following the missile tests were disappointing, especially since they were out-of-synch even with China’s response, as well as the eventual outcome of the UN resolution. North Korea’s own behavior has become the greatest threat to the sustainability of the Sunshine Policy.
South Korea will find itself under greater pressure to cut off not only humanitarian remittances to the North, but also activities involving direct cash transfers or remittances to Pyongyang’s leadership. The conversation between Presidents Bush and Roh regarding North Korea during his visit to Washington in September could be a make-or-break moment for policy coordination toward North Korea. Roh will be under considerable pressure to come into line with the American approach.
Ironically, North Korea’s most attractive option to break the American-led coalition will be to return to the six-party talks, where there will also be an opportunity for bilateral talks with the United States.
The “safety valve” of North Korea’s return to the six-party talks would ease international pressure on the North. Kim Jong-il always has the option of returning to the six-party talks to relieve international pressure when he sees fit.
North Korea’s misreading of South Korean public opinion at inter-Korean ministerial talks where it offered its “missile umbrella” to enhance South Korea’s security is perplexing. This incident raises serious questions about possible internal political divisions in Pyongyang that might negatively influence or destabilize DPRK policy.
China, South Korea, Russia and even Japan have sought to put the Americans on the spot to actually negotiate with the DPRK under the six-party-talks umbrella, even more so now in light of North Korea’s recent efforts to escalate the crisis. On this critical point, the United States risks isolation in the forum of its own choosing by avoiding bilateral negotiations with Pyongyang. The administration will not pursue the negotiations without a unified public call from other members of the six-party talks. Even under those circumstances, American domestic political factors may make bilateral U.S.-DPRK negotiations impossible.
North Korea’s return to the six-party talks probably will not signify that it is ready to make a “strategic decision.” If the six-party talks fail one more time, tensions may escalate and it will become more difficult to avoid conflict.
The United Nations resolution broadens a consensus among outside powers on the acceptable limits of North Korean provocation.
No party seeks to intervene in North Korea given the menu of other crises on the global agenda.
South Korean initiatives would be welcome in managing the North, if only the Roh administration had earned enough respect from Pyongyang to carry the day.
* The writer, a senior associate with the Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS, is currently a Pantech Fellow at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC). The views expressed here are personal views. He can be reached at
by Scott Snyder