On 2 June 2017, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2356 on the extension of sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The resolution was initiated by the United States in response to North Korea’s continued missile launches. Everyone who took part in the vote noted that adopting the resolution demonstrates the unity of the UN Security Council members and the international community in condemning North Korea’s nuclear missile programme, although that’s where the unity ends. Subsequent assessments of the document by members of the Security Council have been varied and, at times, contradictory.
The US representative, Nikki Haley, declared that if diplomatic and financial measures have no effect on Pyongyang, then the US has «other means». Haley noted that the United States is seeking a peaceful, diplomatic resolution, but «North Korea must fulfil its basic obligations by first stopping all ballistic missile launches and nuclear weapons testing and taking concrete steps toward getting rid of its nuclear weapons program» (i.e. unilaterally disarm before talks even begin – А.V.). Moreover, America extended its own unilateral sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea before the UN vote took place.
Deputy Russian UN Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov interpreted the outcome of the vote somewhat differently. The Russian diplomat stressed that the logic of confrontation is fraught with disastrous consequences both for the Korean Peninsula and for the region as a whole: «It is clear to us that the choice here has to be made in favour of using diplomatic tools to the maximum extent possible. China’s ‘dual freeze’ proposal, which would see North Korea suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for a suspension of military exercises by the United States and South Korea and parallel progress towards solving the problems of the peninsula, deserves serious attention». The US has twice (in 2015 and 2016) dismissed out of hand a similar proposal by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Washington also rejected a Chinese version of the proposal put forward on behalf of Beijing by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on 8 March this year.
We should also emphasise the importance of Safronkov’s statement that sanctions against North Korea must not lead to the strangulation of 25 million ordinary citizens, most of whom are in need of urgent help.
Chinese representatives also spoke out in favour of a speedy resumption of the peace process and a peaceful resolution of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue.
So what does the adoption of Security Council Resolution 2356 reveal in the context of recent events?
1. It does not support the claim regarding the known uncertainty of the new US administration’s foreign policy. Donald Trump has not only made his foreign-policy priorities completely clear, but has also gone on the offensive. There is a lot of talk in the US at the moment about «dual containment», meaning Russia and China. During the US–China summit in April this year, Trump more or less issued Xi Jinping an ultimatum by giving him 90 days to subdue the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea using draconian sanctions. Otherwise, as promised, thousands of Chinese companies that conduct business in one way or another with North Korea will very quickly find themselves under US sanctions. US sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Russia have been extended almost simultaneously. Speaking recently at the Shangri-La Forum in Singapore, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis praised China for working with Washington to tighten the screws in its dealings with Pyongyang in order to force North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. However, this did not stop the Pentagon chief from attacking Beijing in the same speech for its «unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo» in the South China Sea and threatening Beijing with the possibility of an open confrontation with the US in that part of the world.
2. Hard-line documents similar to resolution 2356 have been adopted by the UN Security Council before following particularly high profile actions by Pyongyang that were regarded as gross violations of the WMD non-proliferation regime (the carrying out of five nuclear tests, the launching of long-range ballistic missiles, including with satellites, and so on). Pyongyang has not done anything of the kind since the previous resolution was adopted in November 2016, however, continuing a series of ground and flight tests of predominantly medium- and short-range missiles. This time, however, Washington has decided to punish the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea for its actions collectively, as it were. The White House welcomed the adoption of resolution 2356 as its own victory, stressing that it is the first anti-North Korean decision under the Trump administration to have the unilateral support of the UN Security Council. In this case, victory seems to means that China has already made it through more than half of the above mentioned 90 days without getting Washington to soften its position on the South China Sea in the slightest, while Russia is facing yet another extension of sanctions, including against Russian businesses in North Korea.
3. Can we expect that the Security Council’s new resolution will help solve the Korean issue and have an effect on Pyongyang? Everyone who voted for it knows perfectly well that the answer is no. Resolution 2356 is the third such document in the last 14 months. The UN Security Council has adopted a total of 18 (!) resolutions condemning North Korea’s activities with regard to non-proliferation, 17 of which have been adopted since 2006. During this time, North Korea’s nuclear missile potential has increased substantially, both quantitatively and qualitatively. I believe that any further comment is unnecessary.
While the UN’s efforts to maintain the WMD non-proliferation regime are important, it is difficult not to see the new resolution as one-sided. North Korea is being highlighted as the only source of tension in the region, while the military activities of the US in and around the Korean Peninsula that are provoking the country are not being factored in. Yet multilateral military exercises are being conducted non-stop on North Korea’s borders involving 200,000–300,000 soldiers, three US aircraft carrier groups are concentrated off the coast of North Korea and so on.
The situation on the Korean Peninsula is getting increasingly serious. Despite the rhetoric of US diplomats such as «our goal is not regime change,» America’s objective, first and foremost, is the elimination of North Korea itself rather than its nuclear potential. This is precisely why Washington is so stubbornly refusing to enter into a meaningful dialogue with Pyongyang and hold direct and serious talks in which the latter would be an equal partner, the country’s legitimate security concerns would be taken seriously into account, and the US would be prevented from simultaneously coming up with a «second, hidden agenda». Pyongyang has been searching for this kind of dialogue with the US for a long time, but has invariably been refused. Moscow and Beijing have made sustained efforts to help get the negotiation process back up and running, but these have also been in vain.
In this sense, the comment by Vladimir Safronkov, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN, that «sanctions against North Korea must not lead to the strangulation of 25 million ordinary citizens» reflects a very real threat, a threat that the Trump administration is moving steadily closer to realising by seeking to use the UN as its own personal tool.
A few historical analogies spring to mind. During the Korean War (1950-1953), the UN was a belligerent for the only time in its history (so far) and, contrary to its direct purpose, fought against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Are there any guarantees that history will not repeat itself? Because if it comes to a full, impenetrable economic blockade of North Korea, the destructive effect of this action would be such that it could quickly lead to a second Korean War, the catastrophic consequences of which for both North and South Korea and their neighbours go without saying. And if this happens, can the United Nations continue afterwards to be the main instrument for maintaining and strengthening international peace and security?
Knowing the mindset of North Koreans, I think it is necessary to emphasise that a lot has happened in the last few months that has not left Pyongyang with many options, but is instead pushing the country towards doubling its efforts to strengthen its nuclear shield, the only thing North Koreans believe capable of guaranteeing their survival.
Washington’s approach to the problem does not give Kim Jong-un a single chance to even try to change the strategy and tactics of his behaviour. Kim Jong-un knows perfectly well that agreeing to the option put forward by the Americans is tantamount to surrender and his own quick death. The experiences of Slobodan Milošević, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi have left the North Korean leader in little doubt: any unilateral concession on his part would lead to an avalanche of new demands with an inevitable and swift finale.
North Korea’s leaders, and particularly Kim Jong-un, are among the few state leaders in the modern world who have clearly learned a simple principle and, most importantly, are putting this principle into practice: the US only respects the argument of force. And the North Korean principles that sound so extravagant to foreign ears («we are equally ready for both dialogue and war» and «we will respond to full-out war with full-out war and to nuclear war with our style of nuclear strike warfare») are not just high-sounding battle cries or invigorating rhetoric, but North Korea’s law of life and survival in an unjust and hostile world.