FrontPage Magazine | 11.29.10
By Alan W. Dowd

What’s most striking about North Korea’s latest act of war—and ongoing low-grade war against South Korea—is what it says about the United Nations in specific and multilateralism in general.

It pays to recall that North Korea is lashing out at its democratic neighbor not in response to a go-it-alone, cowboy foreign policy in Washington, but in the context of a wholly multilateral approach on the part of two consecutive administrations—an approach that has utterly failed.

Before getting into the myth of multilateralism—and how to respond to Pyongyang—it’s instructive to recap the litany of North Korean misconduct.

Since January 2009, North Korea has detonated a nuclear weapon; test-fired long-range missiles; declared that it no longer is bound by the armistice that brought a cessation to hostilities in 1953; torpedoed and sunk a South Korean ship, the Chenoan, in international waters, killing 46 sailors; fired artillery shells into South Korean waters; and coyly revealed the existence of yet another nuclear facility.

The latest act of war, the 90-minute artillery and rocket attack on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killed two South Korean marines, injured 14 and destroyed 60 buildings. Calling the North’s assault “a premeditated, intentional illegal attack,” South Korea responded with an artillery barrage of its own.

In the face of these continual affronts, the UN has done virtually nothing. The most embarrassing example of UN fecklessness and worthlessness vis-à-vis North Korea came this past summer, after the unprovoked attack on the Chenoan. The best UN diplomats could muster was a pathetic report condemning the attack on the ROK ship without condemning the attacker.

Of course, the problems at the UN began long before this latest spasm of North Korean mischief.

The UN Security Council’s responsibility, according to the UN Charter, is “the maintenance of international peace and security.” After more than a half-century of failure, it’s safe to say that it’s not working. Of the dozens of wars and threats that emerged since its founding, the UNSC was able to mobilize for concerted action on arguably just two occasions: Korea in 1950 and Kuwait in 1990. Of course, the first was a fluke, thanks to Moscow’s shortsighted decision to boycott a UNSC session; and the second proved to be a post-Cold War aberration. The UN failed in Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq—and that was just in the 1990s. It took eight weeks in 2002 for the Security Council just to agree on a resolution requiring Iraq to comply with existing resolutions. Once it passed, half the Security Council refused to enforce it.

“It gets even better,” as French president Nicolas Sarkozy sarcastically observed last year, during a blistering critique of the UN’s record in North Korea and Iran. The North Koreans “have violated all Security Council deliberations since 1993, and they disregard everything that the international community says, everything. What’s more, they are continuing their ballistic tests,” he intoned.

“Since 2005, Iran has violated five Security Council resolutions,” he explained. “An offer of dialogue was made in 2005, an offer of dialogue was made in 2006, an offer of dialogue was made in 2007, an offer of dialogue was made in 2008, and another one was made in 2009…What did the international community gain from these offers of dialogue? Nothing. More enriched uranium, more centrifuges.”

The problem with the UN, as Sarkozy suggests, is that it simply cannot respond to threats to peace. As William Pfaff observed in the 1990s, organizations like the UN can actually be “an obstacle to action, by inhibiting individual national action and rationalizing the refusal to act nationally.” The consequence of such inertia is on display in and around North Korea.

North Korea’s behavior demands a response.

The realists will caution that any response should avoid war—and understandably so, given that a full-blown war on the peninsula would devastate South Korea, send shrapnel tearing into Japan, and cost thousands of American lives. Seoul would bear the brunt of Korean War II. With its 10 million citizens, Seoul sits just 25 miles from the DMZ, the northern edge of which is bristling with North Korean weaponry. As former Defense Secretary William Perry explained in 2002, “North Korea deploys more than one million soldiers near the DMZ, and its 11,000 long-range artillery pieces hidden nearby could rain destruction on the South Korean capital.” Gen. Leon LaPorte, the former commander of U.S. forces in Korea, added a chilling footnote in 2005: Every third round fired by North Korean artillery would be a chemical weapon. 

In short, now is not the time for a U.S. air strike.

That said, while we strive to avoid a full-blown war—and try telling the families of those killed on Yeonpyeong island and on the Chenoan that this isn’t a war—we need to keep in mind that avoiding war may not be an option due to the kind of regime that rules North Korea.

Whether or not North Korea’s dynastic, decrepit regime wants a war, it’s obvious that it wants attention. We should oblige Kim and his sons, and give them all the attention they could ever hope for.

  • For starters, the U.S. and South Korea should extend the joint naval maneuvers they launched last summer, inviting Australia, Japan, Singapore and other allies to join in.
  • If China doesn’t think the U.S. is serious and continues to allow North Korea to play these deadly games, Washington should play the Tokyo card and declare that the United States recognizes the need for Japan to develop and deploy its own nuclear weapons. In fact, DefenseNews reports that a Japanese government panel recently called on policymakers to be open to lifting bans on “development and possession of nuclear weapons.”
  • Finally, since it appears the North Koreans want an arms race, perhaps the U.S. should give them one and redeploy the nuclear weapons it withdrew from South Korea in 1991. In light of revelations that North Korea has been hiding a secret uranium-enrichment facility, The Financial Times reports that South Korean defense secretary Kim Tae-young has raised the prospect of redeploying U.S. nukes.

The UN hasn’t gotten Pyongyang’s attention for quite a while; perhaps some combination of these forceful but measured and reciprocal responses will.