Guest Column: The ticking time bomb in the U.N. Resolution on North Korea

The recent U.N. Security Council resolution imposing economic sanctions in response to North Korea’s recent nuclear test contains a provision that could cause a war: a clause allowing U.N. members to intercept and inspect cargoes entering or leaving the reclusive Stalinist state. If we wish to solve the North Korean problem peacefully, we must avoid such a high-risk strategy. Instead, we should address China’s concerns and convince the Chinese that they stand to gain by solving this problem for us.

North Korea is unlikely to do anything rash in response to most of the new restrictions (which are more annoying than threatening), but it might well regard the U.N.’s inspections provision as a serious provocation, since it would establish a thinly disguised blockade of North Korea. U.N. Security Council members would never use that term, of course, as a blockade is an act of war under long-standing principles of international law, and North Korea has stated on numerous occasions (even before the current confrontation) that it would consider a blockade an act of war.

Many of Pyongyang’s statements over the years have amounted to nothing more than froth and blather, but as China understands, this warning may be different. Stopping and boarding North Korean ships might be an intolerable humiliation to Kim’s prickly and paranoid regime. If a North Korean vessel resisted a boarding attempt and fighting ensued, it would raise dramatically the odds of an ugly incident.

China is North Korea’s principal economic partner, and it worries that a blockade will trigger a crisis. Beijing rebuffed American and Japanese pressure for an even stronger provision obligating U.N. members to conduct cargo searches. At China’s insistence, the resolution authorizes but does not mandate member states to intercept and inspect ships. And in an effort to placate Pyongyang, Beijing has already announced it will not conduct searches as a general practice.

But the United States and Japan will almost certainly take that action, and therein lies the potential for a spark that could ignite a second Korean war. And a nasty war it would be. North Korea has an army of more than 1 million troops ready to invade South Korea. It also has enough artillery pieces to fire some 300,000 shells an hour into Seoul and its suburbs, home to nearly 50 percent of South Korea’s population. Finally, North Korea has rockets capable of reaching targets in both South Korea and Japan.

No rational person wants North Korea to have nuclear weapons. But the one thing worse than having to deter a nuclear-armed North Korea is starting a full-scale war in a clumsy attempt to prevent Pyongyang from developing nukes. Enforcing a blockade threatens to do just that.

We need a more patient and subtle strategy. Washington’s goal should be to neutralize the North Korean threat without heightening the risk of war and without leaving its fingerprints all over the place. The Bush administration needs to strike a covert deal with the one country that is capable of quietly undermining Kim’s regime: China.

Washington should suggest to Beijing that if it uses its substantial economic leverage to subvert Kim’s government, the United States will not exploit the situation to enhance its own position on the Korean peninsula.

Indeed, administration officials should tell their Chinese counterparts that if a subversion effort causes the North Korean state to unravel and lead to a united, democratic Korea—a likely outcome—the United States will withdraw all of its forces from the peninsula and end its alliance with Seoul.

Such a strategy might take some time to bear fruit, but it is far superior to the reckless course the United States seems to be pursuing by imposing a blockade.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author or coauthor of seven books on international affairs, including The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (Palgrave/Macmillan).

From the Nov. 15-21, 2006, issue

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