After Ukraine, UNSC faces another acid test on Korea

The United Nations Security Council was already facing tough questions on its credibility having been further eroded by its inability to deliver an early termination of the Ukraine crisis. It was to meet again on Friday to take stock of another cascading crisis: the rapidly rising tensions and possible nuclear escalation on the Korean Peninsula.

The current tensions on the peninsula can be traced to the September 29 visit by US Vice-President Kamala Harris to the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides North and South Korea. This was followed the next day by resumption of US-Japan-South Korea trilateral naval exercises that had been suspended since 2017 when then-US president Donald Trump reached out with an olive branch to Kim Jong Un’s regime. 

North Korea responded to the resumption of these naval exercises by launching ballistic missiles over Japan. Tokyo took the matter to the Security Council, which saw Russia and China insisting that it was the US-led military exercises in the Sea of Japan that had provoked North Korea, and the discussion ended in a deadlock. 

Obviously no lessons were learned, as this Monday saw the beginning of another five-day-long US-South Korea annual air exercise, Operation Vigilant Storm, which had also been suspended since 2017. Only this time around, the response from North Korea was more than anticipated, leading the US and South Korea to extend exercises beyond their scheduled closing date on Friday, further aggravating a rapidly rising crisis in the making.  

Rapid buildup

Against this backdrop of mutual suspicions, the last four days were especially dramatic. The news of resumption of Vigilant Storm had already triggered angry responses from Pyongyang, calling them “aggressive and provocative” and requesting their suspension. But their initiation on Monday saw North Korea begin an unprecedented cascade of missile launches. On Wednesday, it launched nearly 30 missiles and more than a hundred artillery shells.

To make things worse, for the first time since the 1948 bifurcation of the Korean Peninsula into North and South, three missiles on Wednesday landed 56 kilometers south of the Northern Limit Line off the east coast. And to complicate matters further, this was responded to by South Korea’s F-15K and KF-16 jets firing three guided surface-to-air missiles into the sea approximately same distance north of the Northern Limit Line.

The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff called it their “resolve to respond sternly to any provocations,” while Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said North Korea’s actions were “absolutely unacceptable.”

On Thursday morning, taking matters forward, Pyongyang launched a Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which reportedly failed after reaching an apogee of 750km and falling into the Sea of Japan. Anticipating it crossing over Japan, Tokyo had issued a warning to its northern prefectures.

To recall, North Korea had carried out the first test of its Hwasong-17 ICBM on March 24 this year. But this again is believed by some to have failed, though others believed it reached an apogee of 6,000km and traveled a distance of 1,090km in 64 minutes. 

The Hwasong-17, also called the “Monster Missiles,” is the most potent symbol of North Korea’s nuclear deterrence against the United States.

And to endorse this conviction in Pyongyang once again, within hours US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, during a meeting with his South Korean counterpart, issued a warning that any North Korean nuclear attack, including use of non-strategic nuclear weapons, against the United States or its allies would “result in the end of the Kim regime.”

UNSC deadlocked

Meanwhile, the United States – backed by Britain, France, Albania, Ireland and Norway – asked for the UN Security Council to meet publicly on Friday to take stock of the efficacy (read inefficacy) of all its bans on North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests.

The result of this meeting, however, can be anybody’s guess. Only last month, Japan brought this issue of North Korean missiles to UNSC with no results whatsoever. This, if anything, has perhaps further emboldened Kim Jong Un.

Friday’s meeting will not be the first time the Security Council has discussed North Korea. Since 1984, Pyongyang has carried out more than 200 missile launches and six nuclear tests, and half of these have been since 2016 under Kim Jong Un. Likewise, since 1950, the UNSC has passed 21 major resolutions (plus resolutions to extend or implement earlier resolutions) related to North Korea, with the majority of these since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2012. 

As well, in more than one way the current Ukraine crisis has only strengthened North Korean resolve. Without doubt, the Ukraine war has exposed the limitations of the veto-based system of the UN Security Council.

But the war in Ukraine – a country that once held the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal, which it surrendered in 1994 in exchange for security guarantees by the veto-wielding UNSC Permanent Five members – has also reinforced the “currency of power” argument about nuclear weapons.

In a bizarre way, this has also reinforced the resolve of nuclear-aspirant nations. Does this make non-proliferation a lost cause and the future far too uncertain?

Back to the future

North Korea, if anything, forms part of this deeper malaise of great-power contestations. Its departure from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, first in 1994 and then finally in 2003, saw the United States for the first time outsource the non-proliferation lead to China as convener of the Six Party Talks.

Those talks took place from 2003 to 2009 and, after a lot of juggling, even clinched a joint statement on denuclearization. North Korea even dismantled its plutonium-producing reactor. The United Nations set up a monitoring committee under UNSC Resolution 1718 and a Panel of Experts created under UNSC Resolution 1874 of 2009.

But great-power contestations intervened, especially since Donald Trump’s tumultuous “fire and fury” phase, which was followed by his two “falling in love” summits with Kim Jong Un, encouraging Pyongyang to find solace and faith in brute force.

And once again, the ongoing escalation on the Korean Peninsula seems to be getting far too intertwined with exogenous factors that vary from domestic constituencies to global equations of major powers. 

Resumption of the air exercises this week, for example, has been linked to the war in Ukraine, where North Korea, along with Iran, has been provisioning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military operations.

US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby had only recently accused North Korea of providing “thousands” of artillery shells to aid Russia’s Ukraine war. And the United States also remains anxious about incessant reports of North Korean ICBM tests and its next nuclear test, which is seen as imminent given that both Russia and China are unlikely to support UN sanctions on Pyongyang.

With attention quickly shifting to the coming climate and G20 summits, interlocutors on escalating Korean Peninsula tensions may find brief relief in a stalemate by focusing on style rather than substance. But remember, such hedging strategies may push dangers further away into future, but they make their outcomes potentially more catastrophic.

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU.