Crime and No Punishment

Frank Crimi in FrontPage

While most Western intelligence agencies and independent experts have long accused North Korea of selling its nuclear and ballistic-missile technology to other rogue regimes, a new report released by the United Nations gives added affirmation to that claim.

The release of the report, whose publication had been delayed by China for six months, coincides with the meeting of world leaders at the G-20 economic summit in Seoul, South Korea.

Compiled by a UN panel of experts, who had been charged with monitoring North Korean compliance on imposed UN sanctions, the 75-page report outlines North Korean involvement in supplying banned weapons material to Syria, Iran and Myanamar (Burma).

Specifically, North Korea is alleged to have violated UN resolutions 1784 and 1874, which had been imposed on North Korea for setting off two nuclear test devices in 2006 and 2009.

According to the UN report, “Evidence provided in these reports indicates that the DPRK (North Korea) has continued to provide missiles, components, and technology to certain countries including Iran and Syria since the imposition of these measures.”

North Korea was also cited for using a “broad range of techniques to mask its financial transactions,” mixing “illicit transactions with otherwise legitimate business activities in such a way as to hide the illicit activity.” Because of the dilapidated state of its oceanic fleet, North Korea was also accused of relying “increasingly on foreign-owned and -flagged ships to carry all or part of its illicit cargo.”

One question that now emanates from the report’s findings centers on the effect, if any, the UN report will have on the resumption of the six-nation (two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the United States) talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, negotiations which ended in April 2009.

A second, and perhaps more relevant, question is if North Korea will pay any substantial price for these violations of international law. If history is any guide, the answer is probably not.

For many, the UN report is not surprising in its conclusions and just serves to underscore North Korea’s longstanding unwillingness to seriously partake in discussions over the termination of its nuclear ambitions. As with the current debate over Iran’s nuclear program, actions speak much louder than words.

In 2007 evidence surfaced over the completion of a Syrian nuclear reactor built with North Korean assistance. Although the United States refused to takeout the facility, it raised no objections when the Israeli government, acting on its own, ordered its air force to destroy the reactor.

In 2009 North Korea walked out on the six-nation talks in protest over international condemnation over its long-range missile technology program. While North Korea had ostensibly agreed to end its entire nuclear program in 2007, shutting down its main-plutonium producing plant at Yongbyon in the process, the walkout produced a resumption of operations at Yongbyon .

Soon after, North Korea set off its second nuclear test device, which resulted in the current sanctions that it is now accused of violating. Moreover, there are now reports surfacing it will soon set off a third nuclear test device.

Still there are those, like UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, who remain confident North Korea will come back to the negotiating table, saying, “We expect that they will return to six-party talks and cooperate fully in realizing a denuclearized Korean peninsula.”

However, the exodus of North Korea from the negotiating table has failed to create any urgent impetus among the other involved parties, most notably the United States and South Korea, to resurrect any dialogue unless North Korea has demonstrated a sincere willingness to abandon its nuclear program. The UN report will do little to allay those concerns.

Yet, somewhat predictably, North Korea still holds South Korea and the United States responsible for any stalemate in negotiations, blaming the inaction on both nations for holding military drills that it says poses a nuclear threat.

The drills, of course, were a response to the sinking in March 2010 of a South Korean warship by a North Korean submarine which killed 46 sailors, an allegation that North Korea vehemently denies. South Korea, for its part, has not requested an apology be made for the sinking of its warship as a precondition to resume talks.

Given the blatant disregard North Korea has displayed toward international sanctions, the United States and South Korea may be lukewarm to a resumption of talks with North Korea at this time and more inclined to ratchet up a new set of harsher sanctions.

The Russians, however, see resumption of talks more of a necessity given they now view the threat posed by North Korea to eclipse that of even Iran. Russian President Dimitry Medvedev has said, “Despite the fact that Iran is often given special attention, I should note that Tehran, unlike Pyongyang, has not declared itself a nuclear power, has not tested a nuclear weapon and … has not threatened to use one.”

Adding to the unease expressed by Medvedev is the complete unpredictability of the North Korean regime and its leader Kim Jong-ll to any further threats of economic sanctions. Despite the presence of 27,000 American troops stationed along Korea’s demilitarized zone, serving as a tripwire to deter a North Korean invasion, it has never stopped North Korea from periodically testing the resolve of its neighbors.

Complicating matters further is the now rumored leadership succession said to be taking place in Pyongyang, as Kim Jong-ll purportedly grooms his twenty-seven year old son Kim Jong-un as his replacement. Of course, the inner workings of the extremely insulated, despotic North Korean regime remain shrouded in mystery so it’s not conclusive if or even when this transition would take place.

However, not all participants in the debate tend to view North Korea in the same light.  China has long viewed North Korea to be a natural and strategic buffer against the expanding economic regional dominance of both Japan and South Korea. This view was neatly summed up by Chinese President Jiang Zemin in 2002 when he informed then President George Bush that North Korea was “my problem, not his.”

Although China has signed off on sanctions against North Korea, as well as Iran, it has been tepid in its efforts to ensure their enforcement. In fact, China has worked actively in recent years to slowdown efforts to enforce UN sanctions among most of its strategic allies.

Now, however, China, according to one diplomat, “has other priorities.” These priorities may now have less to do with protecting close partners and more to do with avoiding the embarrassment that its own weapons have been found in places that violate UN sanctions, most notably in Darfur. Given these findings, it’s not too surprising then to see China’s acquiescence in allowing the release of the UN report as a way to shift focus away from its own transgressions.

So, as the report will now find its way to the UN Security Council, it will surprise very few if that body calls for another round of sanctions to be imposed on North Korea, along with a call to resume the six-nation talks. What will be of complete surprise is if either action changes North Korea’s neverending nuclear ambitions.

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