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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2784

UN Resolution on North Korea: Global Consensus or National Interests?

Professor Laksiri Fernando, University of Sydney (Visiting)

The UN Security Council Resolution on 14 October 2006, placing strong sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear armaments program, was remarkable for its unanimity.

The DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) or popularly called North Korea, confused and angered major powers including China, if not the whole world, by conducting nuclear tests the week before, following previous missile tests in July 2006. All protests and threats of many nations particularly by Japan and the US did not deter the DPRK from testing its atomic bomb. The issue of Atomic Bomb is a highly sensitive one to over 127 million Japanese who are reminded of the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

While China and Russia expressed initial concerns over invoking Chapter 7 of the UN Charter in its full force for the current resolution that might even allow military intervention, they finally agreed to apply Article 41 of the Chapter which explicitly excludes military action.

The UN resolution demands North Korea to abandon its nuclear-weapons program and urges all nations to prevent Pyongyang importing or exporting any material relevant for that purpose. It also prohibits export to or imports from North Korea a number of military hardware and luxury items. The second part of the resolution addressed to the UN member states undoubtedly might allow the willing nations to stop, block and inspect shipments to and from North Korea in sea-lanes or land-routes, which might even lead to confrontation. A possible confrontation, therefore, could be avoided only if the UN or other influential parties manage to soon bring Pyongyang to six-party nuclear disarmament negotiations.

The six-party negotiations are comprised of the US, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia with Pyongyang, which proceeded smoothly few years ago and then faltered last year due to intransigence on the part of the DPRK, and also negligence particularly on the side of the US. The North Korean request was to have direct talks with the US, and that was strategically neglected or ignored. The major land route to Pyongyang, apart from South Korea, is via China that has a 1,400-kilometer border with its belligerent neighbor. It has already become doubtful whether China would implement its full ‘obligations’ under the resolution, apart from routine inspections.

The purpose of this article is not to discuss the undoubtedly enormous danger or the ostensible right of North Korea’s nuclear program or to speculate whether the UN sanctions and consequent actions would lead to a disastrous confrontation. While these are important questions to ponder, and as many others have already dwelt on these matters, the purpose of the present is to briefly deliberate on whether the unanimous approval of the UN resolution is an indication of an emerging global consensus on nuclear issues or is it a pragmatic compromise hiding different and rather contradictory national interests?

It was Condoleezza Rice who first hailed the unanimity of the resolution as a show of "remarkable unity of purpose and unity of message to North Korea" (VOA News, 15 October). She herself is a Political Scientist and a strong advocate of globalization and democratic globalism, perhaps euphemisms for intended US global hegemony. However soon it became revealed in several news reports that China might not inspect shipments going to and from North Korea and at least its understanding of the implementation of the resolution is different to many other countries, particularly the US. When asked about these reports, Rice speaking on the Fox News on the same day pointed out that China did sign the UN resolution and added, "It is a Chapter-Seven UN Resolution."

Irrespective of the unanimous approval of the UN resolution, the whole episode of the North Korean nuclear issue shows how deep the world is still divided on sectarian nationalism and to what extent the major powers place national interests before anything else. Nationalism still reigns. There are a few background factors that we need to take into account.

First was the rise of a new wave of fervent nationalism in North Korea, in the aftermath of the demise of Kim Il-Sung and with the ascendancy of Kim Jong-Il. This new nationalism was partly geared to circumvent the power struggles within the Korean Workers Party and the Military to safeguard its new ‘Dear Leader.’ It was also linked to the efforts at uniting both Koreas, presumably under the hegemony of the North, but with positive responses from the South under its ‘Sunshine Policy.’ Then it was to do with its frictions with China both on economic and political policy, the emerging China wanting its traditional ally to become more of a ‘vassal’ than an equal ‘Comrade.’ Obviously it has much to do with North Korea’s enmity with the US dating back to the 1953 division of the country, and particularly after President George Bush’s naming of North Korea as part of the “axis of evil” with Iraq and Iran in 2002.

The nuclear brinkmanship of Kim Jong-Il has been a strange device to counter perhaps all these challenges, the way the Korean nationalism knows best – through a kind of Juche or self-reliance ideology - even diverting enormous resources from economic development, and depriving a large number of its own citizens from basic requirements of housing, employment and even nutrition. It was not uncommon to notice in the last several years, lesser and lesser Chinese convoys crossing the border to North Korea.

This nationalism however is not a kind of broad based mass nationalism, irrespective of the ritualistic mass demonstrations that the regime performs quite frequently to instill legitimacy and support to the regime. This nationalism basically is bureaucratic and state engineered, with the leader or a group of leaders taking the hegemony. However, the considerable military manpower that the DPRK could mobilize in the eventuality of a confrontation should not be underestimated. The DPRK response to the UN resolution so far has been defiant. As Ri Kyong Son, vice spokesman for North Korea's Foreign Ministry, said in an interview with APTN in Pyongyang, "If the U.S. increases pressure upon (the North), persistently doing harm to it, it will continue to take physical countermeasures, considering it as a declaration of a war."

North Korea’s nuclear nationalism, while creating serious shock waves throughout South Korea and Japan, has angered the latter most creating a resurgence of Japanese counter nationalism. This rise is clearly reflected in recent opinion polls in Japan and in some of the demonstrations that has taken place. The conflicting nationalisms between Korea and Japan are long standing. It was Korea that influenced or subjugated Japan in the ancient period spanning for several centuries. But it was Korea that was at the receiving end of what was called the Japanese Imperialism during the 20th century. The memories undoubtedly are still alive. Perhaps Korea wants to reverse it, or at least retaliate the past, if at all possible. The enmity would continue. Japan’s response so far has been the strongest after North Korea’s nuclear tests. Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Diet (Japanese Parliament), without any tangible opposition from other parties, backed a series of harsh measures even before the UN resolution was passed including a total ban on North Korean imports and a ban on all North Korean ships in Japanese waters.

It is also the nuclear and missile threats that led Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party to elect a stronger nationalist leader, Shinzo Abe, as the party chief and the Prime Minister, when Junichiro Koizumi retired in September. Japan undoubtedly faces a severe security threat from North Korea given historical enmities, compounded by entirely different socio-economic and political systems that prevail in the two countries. Japan is also vulnerable given the constitutional restrictions it has on military matters; the country largely has to depend on the US for its defense. Article 9 of the Constitution not only “renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes” but also prohibits the maintenance of “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potentials,” except maintaining the National Defense Force. There is growing concern on the part of China that the situation might drastically change, and Japan might even enter the nuclear race backed by the US. The new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has already promised to change Article 9.

There are many other countries in the region that are concerned, Australia being one of them. Australia is undoubtedly an emerging power in the region backed by its healthy economic performance now for nearly a decade. Its present Prime Minister, John Howard, and the Liberal Party are added factors. Australia’s current foreign policy concerns are similar to the US, with a considerable repulsion for the DPRK regime and the current posture of North Korea. The DPRK is popularly branded as a "rogue regime" in the public media and in political rhetoric. There are considerable security concerns as well for Australia, given the possible nuclear proliferation in the Korean peninsular or East Asia and the Asian region in general.

China may appear the least threatened, but it is hardly the case. Does China want the DPRK to blunder and then bring it back under its fold of hegemony? It is scarcely a rational strategy. China was previously considered to be the closest or the only ally of North Korea with a considerable influence on policy directions. But the past events have proved it is possibly not the case. If China had any decisive influence, the nuclear tests of the previous week could have been prevented.

It is true that there has been no nationalist reaction at least so far in China to Korea’s nuclear tests, amongst the general public or within the political hierarchy. There are no reports to that effect. China is a country that can withstand that kind of threat or the ‘heat of North Korean nationalism,’ given its mammoth size and the present economic strength. And apart from the above, it has been a close ally of the reclusive regime. China’s predicament however emerges from North Korea’s adventure and the obvious moral high ground that the US would take and has already taken on the subject. Condoleezza Rice is already traveling to Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing to convince the three neighbors about the necessity for a more robust future response to Pyongyang apart from the strict implementation of the UN resolution. China undoubtedly would be in an awkward position. It is not yet clear whether the concessions acceded by the US to China (and Russia) for a compromise and a unanimous resolution were intended as a trap or a genuine concession.

On the Korean issue as well as on many other issues, the US appears or postures as the ‘conscience of the world,’ at least in military and political spheres. It is true that this cannot be said even within ‘quotation marks’ on environmental or human rights issues. Since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, and after the demise of the Soviet Union, the US has been advocating a policy of globalization and democratic globalism, free from international terrorism and nuclear threats. The regimes like North Korea, Cuba or even China, apart from Iran or Syria are obvious obstacles to this advocacy.

It must be said, on the other hand, that North Korea perhaps genuinely considers the US to be a nuclear threat to its country and the people. It is of course a threat, but a nuclear threat might be an exaggeration. Even if the claim of ‘nuclear-threat’ is true, North Korea’s effort at nuclear armament is solely an ill-proportionate attempt at possible deterrence. North Korea also believes that the North-South unification was scuttled by the US. This is a belief largely shared by some sections of the South Korean elite as well. It is quite obvious that the South Korean regime has been extremely cautious in handling its northern neighbor, or one might say its ‘own compatriot.’ In any possible confrontation, ‘blood’ may prove to be thicker than any other consideration. Whatever the crooked form that the system in North Korea displays, it has nothing much to do with ideological communism or preservation of communism. The policies are largely governed by Korean nationalism, which is also common to the South.

The question is whether the US policies are governed by altruistic globalism or self-centered nationalism. If one goes by the political rhetoric of President Bush, his key officials like Condoleezza Rice or other erstwhile Advisors in the ‘neo-con circles,’ it is very difficult to separate out the two. To be fair by the US, they would also not deny or hide that the national security issues and concerns largely govern their foreign policies. American nationalism undoubtedly is more than ‘banal’ (Michael Billing, Banal Nationalism, 1995). What they argue is that their national interests and even nationalism reflect and represent global concerns and global interests at the present juncture. This may appear acceptable or even impressive if that is the case. But the events at least since the Iraqi invasion show that this is hardly the case. The world is a much more complex and diverse place, for one nation to claim its leadership, or to be its authentic representative.

There is no unanimity on this question among the ruling elite in the US itself. There are obvious differences between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party on the subject. For example, Senator John Kerry, who ran against President Bush in the 2004 presidential election, as the Democratic Party candidate, has accused the Bush administration of mishandling the Korean issue. After criticising the UN Resolution itself, what he has finally said is that US should have negotiated with North Korea directly to “address the nuclear crisis and other unresolved issues remaining from the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War in 1953” (VOA News, 15 October).

It is very difficult to judge or review the foreign policy of a country on the basis of what the opposition politicians say when they are out of power, whether it is the US or any other country. But what may be correct in hindsight is the inadvisability of the use of pure military power without attempting at effective diplomacy in resolving international disputes such as the Korean crisis that obviously fuel and proliferate nationalism and (inter) national conflicts instead of cooling them down.

- Asian Tribune -

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