The U.S. alleged this week that North Korea is preparing to test fire a multi-stage missile with the theoretical range to reach American territory. Of course, such a missile, if deployed, would offer the North Koreans the next step of nuclear deterrence against the U.S. So it is not hard to understand why the North Koreans might want to test that capability, and it is also not hard to understand why the U.S. might not want them to take that step. A missile test is a matter of power and interests.
Japan and South Korea have more reasons than the U.S. to worry about North Korean military capabilities. They live close to North Korea and have direct, intrinsic conflicts with the North Korean regime. So it is little surprise that they have joined the American efforts to dissuade the North Koreans from their possible missile test.
What is curious in this tiff is the role of the UN. Japanese officials in particular have threatened the North Koreans that they will lodge a protest of the test with the Security Council [as if that "threat" would impose a real cost -- E.G.]. And the U.S. Ambassador to Japan got caught up in the same spirit, suggesting that the U.S. might seek UN sanctions against North Korea in the wake of a missile test. But on what grounds would the Security Council act in this scenario?
In fact, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, has already discussed the possible test with other Security Council members. But Bolton was very cagey about the substance of the discussions — a bit surprising, if the idea of the discussions was to issue a tacit threat to North Korea with the intent of deterring the test.
On the other hand, Bolton’s restraint is not so surprising if you view the UN Security Council as having a limited mandate. We may not like North Korea much, and we may feel threatened by some of its erratic actions, but what North Korea may be about to do does not violate the UN Charter, as far as I can tell.
A South Korean newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, posted a satellite image of the North Korean launch site on its web site [I always enjoy looking at satellite photos on the web; check it out -- E.G.]. Sure, governments are likely to have better imagery and other sources of intelligence, but the key point is that the booster rocket for a satellite launch is indistinguishable from a missile with a re-entry vehicle and a warhead. So we cannot evaluate North Korea’s claim that they are just thinking of launching satellites — the same claim that they made about a 1998 incident where something landed in the Pacific near Japan after a partial launch failure. Even if the North Koreans really want to learn about weapons technology, they can learn a lot from peaceful space launches (they just can’t learn as much about re-entry vehicles and other military-operational details). From where the North Koreans stand — so far, they need a lot of work on getting multi-stage rockets to work right — they have no need to launch a “real” weapon in their test.
And even if they did launch a military missile, what would the U.S. and Japan have to complain about? Countries have not agreed in international law to ban long-range ballistic missiles. A few countries with advanced missile technology have gotten together in the Missile Technology Control Regime, which is an agreement not to transfer certain technologies to countries that don’t already have comparable capabilities. North Korea obviously is not a member of the MTCR. But more important, the MTCR does not prohibit indigenous development of missile technology. And even if the MTCR did prohibit indigenous development, it is not part of the UN Treaty system; what role would the Security Council have in enforcing such an agreement?
In a strange way, North Korea has been following international law in its military technology investments. Instead of continuing to flout the Non-Proliferation Treaty, a few years ago North Korea formally withdrew so that it could pursue its nuclear program.
So, the other countries of the world can get together and criticize North Korea for not participating in international regimes, but we cannot criticize them for breaking their commitments, which is usually what UN Security Council action is about.
Which brings me to the punchline of this post. If the UN is supposed to do anything about a North Korean missile test, then we’ll have to admit that the Security Council is just a place where great powers coordinate their decisions about actions in their national interests — that is, the Security Council is a useful debating society for making some realpolitik policies more effective than they would be without the regular UN meetings. Advocates of international law and norms of “good behavior” don’t tend to like that view of the UN. It is a less expansive vision of the role of the UN in international relations.
But it is a practical view of the UN. The UN does not (and should not) threaten the world’s great powers. It should not be involved in every international incident or every wrinkle of foreign policy. But the U.S. and the other big players should not abandon it, either. Talking and coordinating positions sometimes can help.
Of course, if the North Koreans do test a missile, the UN won’t be likely to matter much in formulating the response. The key players there are the countries involved in the Six-Party Talks on the North Korean Nuclear Issue — the ones with a direct (or, in the case of the U.S., indirect but significant) stake in the region. Mentioning the UN in public statements during diplomatic discussions and military crises has simply become reflexive for foreign ministers and ambassadors. We shouldn’t read too much into the statements of the Japanese Foreign Minister or the U.S. Ambassadors.
But then again, maybe there is hope for the “international norms” people: the fact that mentioning the UN is ingrained in international relations is exactly what some of them want. If only (from their perspective) mentioning the UN meant that UN discussions had some teeth.