Duck and cover: the Council on Korea

At the New Yorker‘s blog, China-based Evan Osnos wonders — quite reasonably — whether the Security Council will deign to comment on the recent nuclear revelations and violence on the Korean peninsula. When North Korea unveiled a secret uranium-enrichment facility with thousands of centrifuges last week, and then shelled a South Korean island, killing four ...

At the New Yorker's blog, China-based Evan Osnos wonders -- quite reasonably -- whether the Security Council will deign to comment on the recent nuclear revelations and violence on the Korean peninsula.

When North Korea unveiled a secret uranium-enrichment facility with thousands of centrifuges last week, and then shelled a South Korean island, killing four people and wounding eighteen, it seemed like a reasonably safe bet to dust off the seats at the U.N. Security Council in anticipation of a powwow. Perhaps even an earnest conversation. Or, dare I say it, a statement.

And yet, day by day, that prospect has slipped further out of view. 

At the New Yorker‘s blog, China-based Evan Osnos wonders — quite reasonably — whether the Security Council will deign to comment on the recent nuclear revelations and violence on the Korean peninsula.

When North Korea unveiled a secret uranium-enrichment facility with thousands of centrifuges last week, and then shelled a South Korean island, killing four people and wounding eighteen, it seemed like a reasonably safe bet to dust off the seats at the U.N. Security Council in anticipation of a powwow. Perhaps even an earnest conversation. Or, dare I say it, a statement.

And yet, day by day, that prospect has slipped further out of view. 

In New York yesterday, Susan Rice was asked whether the Council’s inability to say something about the shelling and the nuclear revelations suggested that the body was dysfunctional. Her response was a notable exercise in making lemonade out of lemons:

With respect to North Korea’s nuclear program, that issue remains one that is very much on the forefront of the Council’s agenda, it’s also a topic that we and others are discussing in the region and in capitals. I think it would be appropriate for the 1718 committee to play an important initial role in discussing and assessing some of the recent news with respect to North Korea’s nuclear program. It is a case, as you know, that the Council did discuss a potential press statement on that subject this week, at 15, and while there was a wide body of agreement it wasn’t ultimately possible to reach agreement on a unanimous statement as is required procedurally. That’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t suggest to me that the Council is unable to function or to fulfill its mandate, quite the contrary, and I’m confident that we will continue to not only discuss these issues but more importantly to take actions consistent with 1874 and 1718 that strengthen implementation of the resolutions that we’ve passed, and continue to seek to constrain North Korea’s nuclear program, and to work toward a denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

The dynamic regarding a Council statement on the shelling is well-known. The great majority of the Council wants to condemn the North, and China won’t allow it. China’s U.N. team has insisted on striking so much key language from draft statements that proponents aren’t sure they want what would be left.

Rice’s emphasis on the role of the 1718 committee is a notable example of how the Council’s sometimes murky procedures can be deployed to patch over divides between the veto-wielding permanent members. The 1718 committee, like all sanctions committees, is what is called a "committee of the whole" — in essence, it’s the Council members meeting and calling themselves something different. It convenes irregularly, behind closed doors, and usually without any public attention.

For Council members eager to tighten the screws on North Korea, discussions there are a way of keeping at least a flicker of heat on North Korea and, perhaps, laying the groundwork for another sanctions resolution. For China, shifting the focus to the committee and away from regular Council meetings alters the dynamic: now, China’s not blocking Council action; instead, the sanctions committee as a whole is deliberating on next steps! And if the pressure for action gets diffused in the committee, that may be just as well from Beijing’s perspective.

David Bosco is an associate professor at Indiana University's School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of books on the U.N. Security Council and the International Criminal Court, and is at work on a new book about governance of the oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist

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