The Corner

Last Chance

On the heels of another weak North Korea resolution, Obama must take swift and decisive action.

On June 12, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed resolution 1874. The resolution, which provides for only a modest tightening of sanctions, fits the small-stick-and-large-carrot pattern of the last 15 years of failed U.S. efforts to rein in the North Korean government. The Obama administration must break this pattern immediately. Time is running out, and North Korea will soon have a functioning arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles capable of delivering those weapons to the United States.  

Resolution 1874 was passed in response to the latest string of North Korean provocations. On April 5, 2009, Pyongyang launched a long-range missile over Japanese airspace. On May 27, 2009, it detonated a nuclear device. Over the following two weeks, it fired six short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan, nullified the truce that ended the Korean War, threatened to attack South Korea for joining the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, and sentenced two American journalists to twelve years of hard labor. Most recently, Pyongyang signaled that it is preparing to launch another long-range missile and test a third nuclear device. All of this comes despite vigorous outreach efforts on the part of the Obama administration. 

North Korea is determined to become a nuclear power, and Kim Jong Il has concluded that the international community is too feckless to stop him from achieving that goal. One can hardly blame him. In 1993, North Korea announced its plan to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and denied inspectors access to its existing nuclear sites. The United States responded by signing the Agreed Framework, which allowed North Korea to develop a limited nuclear power plant program while providing safeguards against its weaponization. But North Korea continued to clandestinely enrich uranium, test missile technologies, and engage in bellicose rhetoric. Attempts to punish North Korea for its violations faltered at every step, with China and Russia consistently blocking meaningful UNSC action. North Korea detonated its first nuclear device in 2006, the same year that it fired off seven missiles, including a long-range Taepodong-2.   

Obama, too, is now learning the practical impediments to effective multilateral diplomacy. He was unable to secure anything more than a non-binding presidential statement from the UNSC in response to North Korea’s long-range missile test in April, and resolution 1874 was diluted to rule out military threats against North Korea, make inspections of North Korean vessels voluntary, and permit North Korea to continue importing small arms from China. The problem is that China and Russia view a nuclear North Korea as less of a threat than an East Asia dominated entirely by South Korea, Japan, and other staunch U.S. allies. So long as this remains their strategic calculus, multilateralism in the UNSC will result in lowest-common-denominator responses with no real consequences for North Korea. 

For multilateralism to stand a real chance, Obama will have to be far more proactive in convincing China and Russia to ratchet up pressure on Pyongyang. Obama must stress that North Korea’s escalating provocations increase the likelihood that South Korea and Japan will go nuclear, resulting in a balance of power in East Asia that is hostile to Chinese interests. Taken together with the fact that Kim Jong Il’s regime is in the throes of an uncertain succession, China should see that its once faithful ally has become a liability that may decide its nuclear status means it no longer has to take orders from Beijing — a result made more likely as Pyongyang becomes less dependent on Chinese aid due to its ability to sell nuclear and missile technology to countries like Iran and Syria. The recipients of these weapons, meanwhile, are likely to destabilize areas of increasing importance to China’s economy, including the Middle East and Africa.      

But as a responsible statesman, Obama must plan for the possibility that multilateral diplomacy will fail. Parallel to his multilateral efforts, Obama should consider unilaterally implementing measures that the UNSC has failed to authorize. This includes embargoes, mandatory interdiction of shipments, and broader asset freezes. Obama’s willingness to take these actions unilaterally may even support his multilateral diplomacy, since it will signal to China and Russia that the United States means business, perhaps jolting them to action for fear of being sidelined. And Obama can no longer afford to neglect missile defense simply because the technology is unproven. As commander in chief, he must take whatever steps necessary to ensure the United States does not become vulnerable to a nuclear attack from a rogue regime.  

U.S. national security is at stake and other would-be nuclear powers are watching closely. Now is the time for the United States to apply sustained pressure, unilaterally if necessary, until North Korea takes meaningful, verifiable steps to dismantle its nuclear program. It is our only remaining hope for preventing North Korea from becoming a full-fledged nuclear state.

– Alexander Benard, a New York attorney, has worked at the Department of Defense. Paul Leaf is a Los Angeles attorney.

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