Multilateral and bilateral talks still the way ahead on North Korea
Pyongyang’s threats to stability are a regional issue. Patient diplomacy and negotiation remain the surest way to end nuclear and weapons proliferation
Seven weeks of negotiations between China and the US sparked by North Korea’s latest defiant nuclear and missile tests have paved the way for a unanimous UN Security Council vote to severely toughen sanctions against the isolated regime. They include measures to make it harder for Pyongyang to raise funds and secure technology for its nuclear weapons programme, such as mandatory cargo inspections, cutting off shipments of aircraft and rocket fuel, and banning all weapons trade.
Loopholes for non-compliance to support a nuclear weapons programme remain, since North Korea can still export iron ore and coal and import oil. Nonetheless the Security Council resolution reflects closer cooperation between the US and China, the North’s chief economic and political ally, which has repeatedly opposed development of a nuclear weapons arsenal.
A lot now depends on how far Beijing will go to compel compliance. It is also the sponsor of stalled six-nation talks on peaceful denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. While China’s UN ambassador Liu Jieyi, said the resolution demonstrated the seriousness of the international community’s stand, he added that it could not solve the region’s nuclear issues and, rightly, renewed calls for the resumption of dialogue and negotiations.
In agreeing to target North Korea’s financial institutions, and exports of natural resources, Beijing’s ultimate aim is to force Pyongyang back into talks, without the unhelpful US precondition of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.
Regrettably, although China keeps the impoverished North supplied with oil and consumer goods and enough food to avert famine, it has limited leverage over Pyongyang when it comes to bringing it to the negotiating table. It is imperative to avoid forcing the Kim Jong-un regime, which is a recipe for even greater hardship for Koreans already suffering from a policy priority of guns before food. Not only would that bring the risk of internal armed conflict and a tide of millions of refugees into Chinese territory, it would raise the prospect of a reunified Korea and the removal of a buffer state against an American ally.
Within hours of the Security Council resolution, the North fired short-range missiles or artillery into the sea towards Japan, a not uncommon response to international condemnation. This is a reminder that the North’s threats to stability are a regional issue, and that patient diplomacy and negotiation through multilateral and bilateral talks remain the surest way to end nuclear and weapons proliferation.