North Korea: Parsing UN Security Council Action

05/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Thrown into a quandary, the United Nations Security Council came up with an American-Chinese compromise statement that condemned North Korea's rocket launch and pledged to revive a blacklist of Pyongyang firms, banks and people.

The outcome of a week of intense diplomacy was a partial victory for President Obama, who had promised a "strong" response, and his UN ambassador, Susan E. Rice, who faced her first serious challenge at the United Nations. The statement, adopted unanimously by all 15 Council members on Monday, rebukes North Korea for the April 5 rocket test, says the launch is a violation of the Council's October 2006 resolution (no. 1718), demands Pyongyang not carry out any more such tests - and promises to move ahead on sanctions imposed in the 2006 resolution.

On the positive side, the statement exhibits unity in the Council, which the United States and its allies want for any future negotiations, particularly an expected resumption of the six-party talks aimed at ending Pyongyang's nuclear program. (The six group the United States, China, Japan, Russia and North and South Korea).

But proper enforcement of the sanctions may largely depend on North Korea's neighbor China, which has urged a "cautious and proportionate" response. China, as well as Russia, had opposed a resolution adding new sanctions that the United States and Japan wanted.

Rice told reporters that the Council's action "allows for the substantial strengthening and augmentation" of the 2006 sanctions, which include an arms embargo, a ban on components for any weapons of mass destruction as well as a prohibition of luxury goods. The Council was also supposed to draw up a list of individuals and firms subject to a travel ban and an asset freeze for involvement in North Korea's ballistic missile and nuclear programs.

Rice said the United States had "already compiled a list of goods and entities" and that Japan would do the same. And compliments flowed. Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, praised the United States and China for "hammering out a compromise text." Japan's ambassador, Yukio Takasu, said China had been "extremely flexible throughout the negotiations."

The sanctions provisions in the October 2006 resolution, which followed North Korea's underground nuclear test, were never implemented because of a resumption of the (now stalled) six-party talks and because North Korea had agreed to dismantle its Yongbyon nuclear reactor. Now Turkey's UN ambassador, Baki Ilkin, has the task of chairing the Council's sanctions panel, which the statement says will report by April 24. If there is no agreement in the committee (which includes all Council members), ambassadors will "complete action" by April 30.

While the UN statement condemned the launch, it avoided saying North Korea had used a ballistic missile as the United States, Japan and South Korea say. North Korea said the rocket launched a communications satellite, which experts say helps Pyongyang develop its missile technology.

Reporters repeatedly asked ambassadors if a statement, compared to a resolution, was legally binding. Rice and Churkin said all decisions taken by the Council, the most powerful UN body, are binding and are to be honored by all 192 UN members.

But debates of this kind have continued for years and statements are deemed to have a lower status than resolutions. And resolutions have also been called into question. Former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, an international lawyer, raised a stir in 1992 when he said a key Israeli-Palestinian resolution (no. 242) on a land-for-peace formula was not binding because it did not invoke Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter on threats to peace and security.

But British Ambassador John Sawers dismissed the arguments, saying that form did not matter. "What matters is the content," he said. "We are tightening the sanctions screw a notch against North Korea."

What's next?

Leon Sigal, who has had contact with Korean officials for 20 years, believes the Obama administration now has no choice but to negotiate, either bilaterally or through the six-party talks -- or both. Washington's inconsistencies in dealing with North Korea, particularly during the past eight years, mean that Pyongyang will want more rewards in response to demands it dismantle its bomb-making infrastructure, he said.

"There is no other way out. The only way you are going to fix this is negotiate," Sigal, co-author of Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy With North Korea, told a recent news conference at the United Nations.

Stephen Bosworth, the new U.S. envoy for North Korea, said the United States was open to bilateral contacts but also gave "great priority to the need to resume the six-party discussions with the goal of ...verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." He said at an April 3 news conference in Washington that the United States would "continue to have bilateral contact and we are prepared to open that channel at any point."

Sigal believes North Korea's most likely demand would be a strategic relationship with the United States, including diplomatic ties. "That's a tall order," he said, because politically Washington, Seoul and Tokyo will run into domestic opposition.

But he said, "No one knows what the North Koreans are going to do, adding: "The North Koreans are brutal at using leverage."