Politics & Policy

Torpedoing North Korean Aggression

Washington must break the pattern of rewarding Pyongyang's misbehavior.

This week, South Korea asked the U.N. Security Council to punish North Korea for sinking one of its navy vessels, killing 46 sailors — the latest in a string of escalating North Korean provocations. It is all but certain that China, a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, will hamper South Korea’s efforts. The U.S. and its allies must be prepared, then, to act outside the U.N.

Last week, international investigators issued a report blaming North Korea for the unprovoked attack, which occurred in March. The strike clearly violates the Korean War truce, but China’s reaction has been muted. China waited nearly a month to offer condolences to Seoul, and it has declined to accept the findings of the international investigators. To make matters worse, China recently hosted Kim Jong Il in Beijing, where the Chinese government reportedly offered him fresh economic aid. In this context, it will be surprising, to say the least, if China supports meaningful Security Council action against North Korea.

History points to the same conclusion. Over the past few years, China has consistently shielded North Korea from punishment for its belligerence and its defiance of international law.  

In October 2006, for example, North Korea detonated its first nuclear device. When the U.N. put together a resolution in response, the U.S. sought to impose mandatory inspections of North Korean planes, trucks, and ships suspected of carrying contraband. Japan suggested banning North Korean exports and denying North Korean ships access to foreign ports. The U.S. wanted a 30-day deadline and the right to enforce the resolution through sanctions and force.

These measures were included in initial drafts of Resolution 1718, but China balked. The 30-day deadline and Japan’s proposal were cut. China — the country best positioned to screen North Korean cargo due to its long border with North Korea — opposed interdiction of North Korean vessels, and maintained that involuntary inspections were inconsistent with international law. The resolution precluded states from using force to compel Pyongyang’s compliance. It ostensibly authorized sanctions, but China crafted loopholes for Pyongyang’s lucrative counterfeiting and narcotics ventures. 

In May 2009, North Korea tested a second nuclear weapon. It then lobbed missiles toward Japan, abrogated the Korean War truce, and attacked U.S.-government computers. After two weeks of Security Council gridlock, Resolution 1874 was passed. But China substantially limited this resolution’s bite as well, prohibiting even the threat of force against Pyongyang, granting North Korea the right to refuse inspections of its vessels, and permitting ongoing Chinese arms sales to Pyongyang. China later violated even this limited resolution, signing several commercial contracts with North Korea and agreeing to provide the regime hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid.  

North Korea’s most recent provocation is an act of war that requires more than a reiteration of President Obama’s grandiose pronouncement that “rules must be binding [and] violations must be punished.” Inaction will embolden rogue regimes by illustrating that the international community is too feckless to meet aggression.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is pressing China to punish North Korea. This diplomatic outreach makes sense, given that China has more leverage over North Korea than any other country does. Secretary Clinton should stress that unchecked North Korean aggression weakens China; Pyongyang’s continued escalation forces Beijing’s regional adversaries (such as Japan and South Korea) to seek greater U.S. military protection. If Secretary Clinton’s efforts fail, however, the Obama administration must not allow China to dictate the international response to North Korea’s act of war. Rather, President Obama should operate outside the U.N. in concert with like-minded allies like South Korea, Japan, and the Europeans.

South Korea took an important step this week, announcing that it will bar North Korean ships from its waters, cease most trade with and investment in North Korea, and join the Proliferation Security Initiative. The U.S. must ensure that South Korea holds firm on these policies, and it should push other countries to implement them and to close their airspace to North Korean aircraft. The U.S. and its allies should also announce that they are postponing negotiations with North Korea on all other issues until this matter is resolved.

Furthermore, Washington must increase its military cooperation with Seoul and Tokyo, including by bolstering its naval presence in the region and engaging in anti-submarine and mine-clearing operations. Finally, the U.S. should declare North Korea a state sponsor of terror and sanction countries and companies that violate existing Security Council resolutions, for example by failing to freeze Pyongyang’s assets and aiding in its acquisition and sale of weapons and WMD components.


Washington must break the pattern of rewarding Pyongyang’s aggression. Iran and other rogue regimes are watching to see whether North Korea’s nuclear weapons immunize it from punishment. If the Obama administration does not take forceful action, then it will prove an additional setback in our efforts to rein in North Korea and will invite other rogues to acquire a nuclear deterrent. 

– Alexander Benard, managing director of an investment firm, has worked at the Defense Department and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Paul J. Leaf, a Los Angeles attorney, is a former editor of the Stanford Law Review.


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