Why the U.N. North Korea Resolution Might Really Work

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Given its track record of division and inaction, it's not surprising that any U.N. Security Council resolution that gets a unanimous vote is almost automatically dismissed as an empty gesture. And if it takes place in the middle of a raging Middle East crisis, as last weekend's North Korea resolution did, it's a wonder it gets noticed at all. All of which makes the resolution that was passed last weekend to help rein in North Korea's nuclear ambitions in the wake of its July 4 missile tests so unusual.

In the Security Council session, Japan, the resolution's primary sponsor, and the U.S. managed to get the votes of China and Russia on a measure that diplomats say could take a big bite out of North Korea's ability to perfect its long-range missiles and spread that technology to other dangerous states. They swayed the two typically reluctant players by dropping objectionable references to Chapter Seven of the U.N. Charter, which authorizes punishments for threats to "international peace and security" ranging from economic sanctions to military force.

There's no international law that bans the development of missiles for self-defense and the sale and shipment of missile technology. A 1987 voluntary accord known as the Missile Technology Control Regime did not include China or any Middle Eastern nations; in fact, the only Asian country that has signed it is Japan and the only African country that has signed it is South Africa. But with Security Council passage of two provisions that "require" U.N. members to prevent the transfer of "missile and missile-related items, materials, goods and technology" to North Korea and to prevent North Korea from selling missile-related items and know-how," says a State Department arms control specialist, "now there's no gray area with regard to North Korea."

The resolution puts pressure on China, the major gateway for goods entering and exiting North Korea, to step up its vigilance by ferreting out smuggling of missile-related goods falsely manifested as innocuous wares.

In addition, says the State Department official,"North Korea's two biggest customers for missiles and missile technology are Iran and Syria. Those states would also be prohibited from any kind of missile cooperation with North Korea. They'll try to get around it, but they'll be in violation of a Security Council mandate." Iranian officials in particular may worry that getting caught dealing with North Korea will sway China to support tough U.S.-European proposals aimed at forcing Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

International banking centers such as Hong Kong and Dubai will also be affected by language requiring all nations to not facilitate wire transfers relating to North Korea's missile program. That could crimp North Korea's ability to finance its weapons programs by selling conventional arms abroad. "It starts to put more pressure all along the supply chain and the financing of those transactions," says the State official.

Slapped together in haste and under pressure, some parts of the resolution are indeed vague and open to interpretation. But Jeffrey A. Bader, a director of Asian Affairs at the National Security Council under President Clinton, argues that "the spirit of the resolution is more important than the letter." "The unanimity of the UNSC behind a pretty strong resolution is the story, in my opinion," says Bader, who now runs the Brookings Institution's China Initiative, "and it sends the desired message to Pyongyang of the unacceptability of its missile launches and its continuing to boycott the six-party talks."

"Given the Chinese and Russian allergy to Chapter Seven resolutions since [the U.S. invasion of] Iraq, this is about as tough a warning as could be achieved in a Security Council resolution," agrees Michael J. Green, the NSC's top Asia hand for the first five years of the Bush presidency, and now based at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"This is tougher language than [North Korea] has ever heard publicly from either Moscow or Beijing, and the language about cooperation on stopping missile trade will significantly help Administration efforts to interdict North Korea shipments of weapons and materials around the world." Referring to China's surprising "yes" vote on the resolution, Green says: "The subtext of China's message to Pyongyang is that further provocations may well lead to sanctions."