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April 2009

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The UN Security Council’s statement on the North Korean missile test, this essay argues, is a diplomatic non-event; more to the point are the possibility of future military action by Japan and South Korea and continuation of the U.S. missile defense program. – Ed.

Feckless Posturing

Fish swim; birds sing (it is spring after all); and politicians…posture.

When you can do nothing about what is happening, strike a pose (good for statuary and those singing birds), and declaim.

Thus we are completing a ritualized viewing-with-alarm over the North Korean missile/satellite launch on April 5. 

Starting with President Obama's declaration that it was a “provocative act,” continuing with statements such as a South Korean statement that the launch constituted a “serious threat” to peninsular security, and following with immediate Japanese government calls for an “emergency” UN Security Council meeting, international reaction was predictable and feckless.

This litany of lyrics has led to … nothing.  Or the next-to-nothing conclusion epitomized by the UN Security Council statement of April 13 ostensibly declaring that Pyongyang’s missile test was illegal, telling them not to do it again, and implying that further economic sanctions will be placed on the North.  The United States contended that the statement was binding, equivalent to a Security Council resolution, but other diplomats and officials disagreed.  Essentially, neither Russia nor China was willing to accept anything tougher on a client state that while doubtless irritating is not going to be abandoned – a status in which we have found ourselves on more than one occasion.

As for Pyongyang, if North Korean apparatchik communists didn’t snicker, their reaction in stating that they would continue their nuclear program and weren’t interested in reopening currently suspended negotiations was certainly the substantive equivalent.

In the end, the North Koreans have a point.  They do have the right to develop a space program with a satellite launch capability.  Certainly this has been the right of the United States, Russia, China, the UK, France, etc. – and would also be the right of Chad, Paraguay, Lebanon, and the like.  My right to swing my arms ends at the tip of your nose; but as long as your nose is untouched, my arm swinging rights continue.  And whether the North Korean launch was a failed satellite attempt (as Pyongyang claimed) or another step in developing a long range missile capability is irrelevant.  Pyongyang has that right as well—the launch was notified and nothing landed on Japanese territory.

There is much that could be done, ranging from massive air strikes against the North Korean military/nuclear/industrial establishment to serious and comprehensive economic sanctions and blockade designed to effect "regime change."  But what we have accomplished is that diplomatic non-event, a flaccid note of protest. 

There are, however, two possible conclusions:

  1. We perform this posturing not with any expectation that North Korea will comply with our demands that they cease-and-desist but to construct an ever deeper pile of documentation to justify dramatic future action at a point when we and/or allies conclude that the North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program has become directly dangerous.  In this regard, it is useful to remember that the U.S. “dog” in this fight is hardly the largest.  Both Japan and the Republic of Korea believe themselves potentially under direct nuclear threat from Pyongyang; together they would have the military capability to destroy the North Korean program, regardless of any potential subsequent conventional military consequences.
  2. The North Korean test provides a salutary illustration of the continued utility of a ballistic missile defense program.  These ABM programs, particularly theater defense for Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, are cheap-at-the-price insurance and may even eventually convince Pyongyang that its potential threat is not only expensive but ineffective.  

The mistake would be thinking that the UN statement is meaningful in any substantive manner.blue star



garlandDavid T. Jones is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer and frequent contributor to American Diplomacy and other publications as well as the co-author of Uneasy Neighbo(u)rs, a book about U.S.-Canada relations.

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