Another Feeble Response to North Korean Aggression

Report Asia

Another Feeble Response to North Korean Aggression

July 9, 2010 5 min read
Bruce Klingner
Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
Bruce Klingner specializes in Korean and Japanese affairs as the Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia.

The U.N. Security Council’s timid reaction to North Korea’s blatant and heinous attack of a South Korean naval ship is extremely disappointing—though not unexpected. China and Russia had been signaling for weeks that they were eager to abandon all concepts of upholding the rule of law and international rules of behavior in favor of meekly maintaining the peace. As for the U.S. Administration, the problem was in not confronting this obstructionism more forcefully and not putting Moscow and Beijing on the diplomatic spot.

America Still Has Options

Rather than claiming victory, as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice did, the Obama Administration should instead declare that China’s willingness to overlook clear, comprehensive, and compelling evidence of Pyongyang’s pugnacity shows that Beijing is not the “responsible stakeholder” that some had hoped it would be. Washington should have made it clear to Beijing that on this issue, it was with either the angels or the demons and there would be repercussions to its decision.

It was appropriate for Seoul and Washington to initially seek U.N. Security Council action in response to the North Korean attack on the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan. A proper U.N. response would have been a binding resolution not only condemning North Korea but also imposing additional punitive measures. Initially it was hoped that China might be shamed into doing the right thing. In the past, Beijing had been willing to punish North Korea, albeit mildly, when Pyongyang’s belligerency crossed a line that even China could no longer condone or ignore.

After the U.N. failure, it is now time for South Korea and the U.S. to take appropriate action by imposing joint sanctions and calling upon other responsible nations to match them. In addition, Seoul and Washington should implement a number of security measures to redress military deficiencies and send a signal that the two allies will take all necessary steps to defend South Korea. Most notably, Seoul and Washington should initiate extensive joint naval exercises near the disputed maritime border in the West Sea where the Cheonan sinking took place.

U.N. Never Fails to Disappoint

Chinese and Russian resistance prevented a binding Security Council resolution, instead producing a timorous presidential statement. The document “deplores the attack [and] loss of life and expresses deep sympathy and condolences to the victims” but does not explicitly identify North Korea as the attacker, much less take any action. The Security Council expressed “deep concern” that the multilateral investigative team concluded that North Korea was responsible but also “takes note” that Pyongyang denied the evidence.

The Security Council worked up its courage to emit a mouse-like squeak of indignation by “condemn[ing] the attack” and “underscor[ing] the importance of preventing further attacks or hostilities.” It calls for “full adherence to the Korean Armistice Agreement … and all Member States to uphold the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” Rather than condemning and punishing North Korea for violating both agreements, the Security Council encourages settling outstanding Korean issues “by peaceful means to resume direct dialogue and negotiation.”

Despite the obvious shortcomings of the document, Rice praised it as a “very clear and an appropriate response that … shows the Council’s unity in confronting threats to peace and security.”

Chinese Obstinacy Complicates Resolution

Far from actually confronting the threat, China’s recent actions have further complicated matters. China has vehemently protested plans for U.S.–South Korean joint naval exercises off South Korea’s coast, claiming that naval exercises in the Yellow Sea are a threat aimed at the PRC. Beijing not only ignores the actual reason for the exercises—i.e., North Korea’s sinking of the Cheonan—but seems ignorant of the fact that, had they issued a stronger response, such exercises might not have been necessary in the first place.  

What Should Be Done: The South Korean Response

The U.N.’s response to North Korea’s attack was pursued and found wanting. It is now time for the U.S. and South Korea to implement joint measures and call on responsible nations to adopt their own sanctions against North Korea.

After the results of the international investigation were announced in May, Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Barack Obama resolutely announced a series of intended responses. Since then, however, South Korea and the U.S. have failed to deliver on some proposed responses, delaying or abandoning several initiatives. Instead of showing strength, both countries have displayed weakness, which will only encourage additional acts of North Korean aggression and Chinese recalcitrance.

To regain the initiative, South Korea should sever all economic engagement with North Korea, including a total withdrawal from the Kaesong industrial zone. Doing so would eliminate 30 percent of North Korea’s total economic trade, severely impacting the regime.

The Lee administration should augment South Korean naval forces and detection capabilities in the West Sea and enhance sensors near the maritime boundary to better detect intrusions by North Korean submarines and covert infiltration boats. It should also declare that any North Korean submarine detected south of the Northern Limit Line will be sunk without warning.

South Korea should redress security shortfalls by increasing defense spending and accelerating programs to respond to North Korean conventional forces, especially improving South Korean C4ISR and crisis response systems.

What Should Be Done: The U.S. Response

The U.S. should signal it will take all necessary measures to defend its critical ally during this time of heightened tensions. Last month, Washington announced it would delay the transfer of wartime operational control of South Korean forces from the U.N. Command back to Seoul. Doing so alleviated South Korean concerns that a premature transfer would dangerously undermine the country’s defense.

The U.S. should also show its resolve by engaging in extensive joint anti-submarine and mine-clearing naval exercises with South Korea in the West Sea. Doing so would augment efforts to identify and redress allied security deficiencies. The exercises would concurrently send a signal to Pyongyang and Beijing that Seoul and Washington will not be deterred from taking all appropriate measures to defend South Korean sovereignty.

The U.S. should take the lead in imposing unilateral sanctions on foreign government, business, and banking entities complicit in assisting North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. The Obama Administration should overcome its reluctance to target the other end of the proliferation pipeline by identifying and targeting other violators of U.N. Resolution 1874 such as Burma, Syria, and Iran. Washington should then call on other nations to match the U.S. effort.

Washington should also resume enforcing international law against North Korean illegal activities, including counterfeiting of currency and pharmaceuticals, illegal production and distribution of narcotics, and money laundering. Despite denials by Washington, this effort seems to have languished following abandonment of U.S. sanctions against a Macau bank accused of assisting North Korean money laundering—a naïve attempt to jumpstart the six-party talks nuclear negotiations.

Taking the Lead

Given the U.N.’s failure to respond effectively to North Korean aggression, the rest of the world—lead by the U.S. and South Korea—should now take the initiative. Failure to do so will only embolden Pyongyang and its Chinese enablers.

Bruce Klingner is Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


Bruce Klingner
Bruce Klingner

Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia