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David G. Miller: Sanctions Wont Stop North Korea

Sanctions Wont Stop North Korea But Military Action Might

By David G. Miller

In the wake of North Korea’s nuclear test, the United Nations has acted in what appears to have been a decisive and unified manner. Decades of division and mistrust have been set aside and the Security Council passed a resolution sending a ‘swift and tough’ message to Pyongyang that the rest of the world willll not tolerate nuclear tests and North Korea will be suitably punished for behaving the way it has. The only problem is the resolution and ensuing sanctions will not make a scrap of difference to the way North Korea behaves and Pyongyang knows it.

As is os often the case with UN resolutions, concessions have been made to avoid any embarrassing vetoes. Bold talk of possible pre-emptive strikes have been ruled out and there is ambiguity regarding the supply of conventional weapons. Whatever financial assets North Korea may have will be examined and possibly frozen and any success in restricting on shipments of materials that may be used to develop nuclear weapons depends on how diligent other nations are at policing such trade. In other words, almost all the teeth in the resolution were taken out before the vote was taken.

In fairness, the United Nations had no option but to react to North Korea’s boast of a successful test. To have failed to impose at least some sanctions would have been a disaster for the world body at a time when it is struggling to assert itself as a credible entity during unstable times. But the reality is that the restriction in supply of such material will be of little consequence to Pyongyang. North Korea has been an outcast of the international community for decades and during this time it has built its military potency around the number of soldiers it has under arms. Its naval and air force capabilities are neglible and even without a strong technology base, North Korea’s power projection is based on its unpredicatbility, apparent willingness to turn a blind eye to international condemnation and the suffering of its own people, and use its missile programme and nuclear capabilites to gain leverage with other nations. Much of its technology has been smuggled into the country via sympathetic countries and black market routes.

The most effective solution to stopping North Korea is a military strike. If sanctions, embargoes of various descriptions and ‘stern and tough’ rhetoric prove unsuccessful then what other options are open to the United Nations? North Korea returning to the Six-Party talks? That path has been well tread and has not produced a solution and while China and Russia have criticised Pyongyang’s actions, North Korea continues to have a free hand to threaten its neighbours and blackmail the International Community into accepting at least some of its demands.

This is not a call for military action to be taken or a show of support for pre-emptive war, but instead is a question as to a course of action. The implications of the United States launching air strikes would involve the North Korea attacking the South in what would become a region-wide war. China and Russia would condemn any such actions and a North Korean collapse would have disasterous consequences for the South and China who would be flooded with refugees and incur the huge economic costs of trying to sustain the North’s impoverished population.

So by testing a nuclear device, Kim Jong –Il holds the cards in this complex and potentially catastrophic situation. He knows that the UN sanctions will not destabilise his regime and with the black market routes open to him, he will be able to maintain some form of nuclear and military power projection and deterence to an attack. He knows that the world and the American public would not tolerate another US pre-emptive war after what has taken place in Iraq and that the downfall of his regime would have severe consequences for South Korea and China. All this test has done is confirm what the world has known for years: North Korea has a nuclear programme. The UN and international community could not stop its progress before the test and will not stop it afterwards. The stalemate and the rhetoric continues.


David Miller is a New Zealand writer living in Christchurch

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