The Security Council’s ritualistic confrontation with North Korea

When North Korea detonated a nuclear device on February 12, diplomats in New York knew just what to do. The UN Security Council’s dance with North Korea is by now quite well scripted. Pyongyang provokes the Council’s members with a missile launch, a nuclear test, or some other mischief. If the provocation is daring enough ...

By , a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies.
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization

When North Korea detonated a nuclear device on February 12, diplomats in New York knew just what to do. The UN Security Council's dance with North Korea is by now quite well scripted. Pyongyang provokes the Council's members with a missile launch, a nuclear test, or some other mischief. If the provocation is daring enough and if Washington and Beijing can agree, the Council responds with either a stern statement or incrementally tightened sanctions. The Council members then applaud themselves for their resolve, North Korea responds with bluster, tensions briefly ratchet up, and then the cycle begins again.

In a new report published by the International Peace Institute, Eduardo Zachary Albrecht wonders if this ritual is doing any good. Albrecht wants the Council to stop playing the provocation-reaction game:

The Security Council’s current approach of matching these provocations with expanded but largely rhetorical sanctions has, unfortunately, played further into the hands of the DPRK in a multitude of ways. Resolutions and condemnations contribute to fulfilling both the DPRK’s strategic interests and its normative conditions. In essence, the more the government is chastised and isolated, the more it can exploit and enjoy that gray area in the international legal system it has cut out for itself.

When North Korea detonated a nuclear device on February 12, diplomats in New York knew just what to do. The UN Security Council’s dance with North Korea is by now quite well scripted. Pyongyang provokes the Council’s members with a missile launch, a nuclear test, or some other mischief. If the provocation is daring enough and if Washington and Beijing can agree, the Council responds with either a stern statement or incrementally tightened sanctions. The Council members then applaud themselves for their resolve, North Korea responds with bluster, tensions briefly ratchet up, and then the cycle begins again.

In a new report published by the International Peace Institute, Eduardo Zachary Albrecht wonders if this ritual is doing any good. Albrecht wants the Council to stop playing the provocation-reaction game:

The Security Council’s current approach of matching these provocations with expanded but largely rhetorical sanctions has, unfortunately, played further into the hands of the DPRK in a multitude of ways. Resolutions and condemnations contribute to fulfilling both the DPRK’s strategic interests and its normative conditions. In essence, the more the government is chastised and isolated, the more it can exploit and enjoy that gray area in the international legal system it has cut out for itself.

By this point, it’s very hard to believe that the Council’s sanctions are deterring the north in any meaningful way. Nor do the sanctions appear to be rendering the regime incapable of developing its nuclear program. They do, however, highlight the Council’s inability to get its way. What’s more, they give the regime another excuse to engage in dangerous brinksmanship and to expand its well-developed victimization narrative. Given all this, is the small additional sanctions tightening that each new resolution yields worth the expenditure of diplomatic capital? It’s possible that the answer is yes. Perhaps each turn of the screw makes it that much harder for the north to produce the next bomb or ballistic missile–or to export  them.

But it’s also possible that the Council members are bound to the sanctions ritual for reasons that have little to do with containing the North’s nuclear ambitions or altering its trajectory. The practice may be so well established that the failure to respond to a provocation somehow—even if with measures that make no real difference—will produce unacceptable domestic political costs. Better a new round of sanctions, U.S. leaders may calculate, than accusations of appeasement.

If the domestic audience is one factor, the international audience is another. The spectacle of international condemnation and punishment may be having its most important impact not in Pyongyang (or Tehran, for that matter) but on other leaders who have had occasional radioactive thoughts. Recent precedent suggests that the Security Council won’t stop states hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. But it will often make the process of acquiring them drawn-out and painful. Viewed from this broader perspective, the apparently futile sanctions game may make some strategic sense.  

David Bosco is a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of The Poseidon Project: The Struggle to Govern the World’s Oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist

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