In the 2002 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush linked North Korea with Iraq and Iran, labeling them as the “Axis of Evil.” Nearly a decade since that address, each of these countries continues to have a role in the security of the United States. The most silent of these three has been North Korea, which has continually kept itself in strong isolation from foreign observers.
During the past decade, the United Nations Security Council has addressed the growing concern of the advancement of North Korea’s military technology. In 2006, the Security Council imposed economic sanctions on North Korea through Security Council Resolution 1718, which prohibited nuclear tests or launch of a ballistic missile, and called for the suspension of “all activities related to its ballistic missile programme,” and for the “abandon[ment of] all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.” The Security Council
further reiterated these provisions and added further sanctions in 2009 through Resolution 1874. The Obama Administration also tried to address such advancements, and seemed to make progress with a February 29, 2012 announcement of a deal that would provide 240,000 tons of food in exchange for the suspension of both nuclear and missile programs.
However, these measures have likely been uneffective, as it seems that the new Kim Jong Un regime has continued to develop North Korea’s missile program. North Korea’s latest attempt at testing a ballistic missile came on April 12, 2012, under the guise of their space program, with an attempted launch of a three stage Unha-3 rocket. Yet the rocket failed several minutes after launch, traveling just over 100 km.
Even before the failed launch, the threat of the test caused concerns among the United States and international community. North Korea has claimed the purpose of the three-staged Unha-3 is to advance the country’s space program and to put a satellite into orbit. According to its state run news agency, the specific goal was to demonstrate the technological advancements and show the “might of another space power advancing towards the world standards by pushing back the frontiers of latest science and technology.” However, many in the international community have speculated that the satellite was merely a thinly disguised attempt to skirt the appearance of breaking the UN sanctions and test an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.
There seems to be little doubt among observers that this was in fact a test of a long-range missile and both the White House and the international community was quick to condemn the launch. Despite this quick reaction, it remains to be seen as to what any substantive response will be. The United Nations Security Council met in a closed door meeting on April 13th, one day after the failed launch, but only said that the launch had violated both Resolution 1718 and 1874. The Security Council stopped short of imposing any sanctions, and in a released statement announced that the body would continue to discuss “an appropriate response in accordance with its responsibilities given the urgency of the matter.” However, with any response that the Security Council agrees to, the question of its effectiveness will develop, as previous UN sanctions have failed to stop North Korea from continuing its ballistic missile or nuclear programs.
As with the United Nations, there is a question of how the Obama administration will proceed. In February it seemed as if the administration was starting to make some progress in talks with North Korea with the agreement to provide food for the suspension of its nuclear and missile programs. With the April 12th failed launch, the White House announced that it will not carry through with the February 29th agreement and will not provide any food aid to the Korean people. While the White House would prefer to enter into peace talks with North Korea and other countries in the region, Press Secretary Jay Carney noted that such talks would be conditional to the suspension of the missile and nuclear programs.
It is too early to predict what any specific action will be taken by the United
States or the UN. Any action that will be taken must be effective to both maintain the security for the United States allies in the region, and to address the growing need for humanitarian aid to the people of North Korea. The best play for both the United States and the North Korean people may be something similar to the February 29th agreement. However, for such a deal to be effective North Korea must be a willing partner, and if the April 12th failed launch is a sign of things to come, a willing partner might be hard to find.