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Will UN Resolution Increase Tensions on Korean Peninsula? - 2003-04-07

The United Nations Security Council has decided to take up the issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons program at a closed-door meeting Wednesday.

The session comes after months of lobbying by Washington and a day before North Korea's withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty takes effect. Some analysts worry that, instead of helping to resolve the issue, a U.N. resolution could further escalate tensions.

North Korea announced in January it was no longer going to abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Eric Heginbotham, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a specialist on East Asian issues, said, "They announced it January 10. They said it was effective January 11." "The rules, though, for the NPT state that the requirement is that you give 90 days notice. So, the U.S. has said all along that it [North Korea] could not have effectively withdrawn by then, and that April 10 was the magic day. So we've been pushing for some action on or around April 10," Mr. Heginbotham said.

Despite U.S. efforts to urge the Security Council to take up the problem of North Korea's nuclear program, China, a long-time ally of Pyongyang and a permanent member of the Security Council, was resisting. Beijing apparently did not want to be put in the awkward position of having to vote on a resolution against North Korea, or support North Korea by vetoing a resolution aimed at keeping the Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons.

Mr. Heginbotham said it appears China may have changed its mind, to allow the Security Council meeting to go forward.

Professor Sam Kim, who teaches Korean politics and foreign relations at Columbia University, said, no matter what action the Security Council takes, it will not ease tensions.

"I think, the Security Council is not likely to adopt a hard resolution on sanctions. But even if they come up with something less than that, in the form of a presidential statement, still it is not going to bring North Korea one step closer to negotiating this issue," Mr. Kim said.

Professor Kim says the Security Council session will allow both sides to engage in grandstanding that will further inflame opinions, and will not move them away from the confrontation.

"North Korea's ambassador to the U.N. made it clear that this can only bring about the chances of war that much closer. Their standard party line has been that any kind of sanction by the United Nations will be accepted as nothing less than a declaration of war, and they have to respond accordingly," Mr. Kim said.

Professor Kim said the issue requires quiet behind-the-scenes talks between Pyongyang and Washington.

The United States wants North Korea to unilaterally stop its nuclear programs before U.S. officials will engage in a direct dialogue with the North. Washington said the issue affects the East Asia region and should be handled through multilateral talks. However, Pyongyang wants the United States to sign a non-aggression treaty and engage in bilateral negotiations.

In the weeks before the U.S.-led coalition began the war in Iraq, North Korea took several actions that were seen as threatening, such as test launches of anti-ship missiles and the interception of a U.S. surveillance plane. Some analysts expected that once the war in Iraq started, the North would take further steps, such as testing long-range ballistic missiles, or starting up its nuclear reprocessing facility. However, that has not occurred.

Professor Kim said the North may be trying to send Washington a signal that it still wants negotiations.

Eric Heginbotham said the Bush administration is hopeful that North Korea may be ready to make concessions. "The administration, I think, is fairly optimistic that, between the pressure and the fact that things appear to have slowed down a little bit, that they haven't taken too many escalatory steps lately, that maybe they're getting ready to capitulate. That may be true. I don't think it's necessarily true. I think things still are quite tense, and it is in a sense risky to wait until they come around to our position," he said.

Mr. Heginbotham said North Korea may still move forward with its threat to resume its nuclear weapons development program.

Professor Kim said Pyongyang is very worried that North Korea is next on the U.S. hit list after Iraq. He said that is prompting the North to be more cautious in the actions it takes, but he adds, Pyongyang's anti-U.S. rhetoric is still very provocative.