Handling a bully who has weapons-grade plutonium
Conventional wisdom tells us that we should stand up to bullies. But what do you do when the bully is of questionable mental health with access to weapons grade plutonium?
(Warning: The video clip below contains strong language which some will find offensive)
On Friday June 12, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1874, calling on all member States (nations) of the United Nations to expand sanctions placed on North Korea, sanctions that were first introduced in October 2006 following North Korea’s first nuclear test. The sanctions call for tougher inspections of cargo suspected to contain banned items relating to the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile activities. This is in response to the North’s most recent nuclear test in May.
North Korean reaction to the resolution was predictable. The Korean Central News Agency reported that any new sanctions imposed against them would be considered a declaration of war; the Foreign Ministry stated that North Korea would “weaponise all plutonium” in their possession and would begin uranium enrichment – the first stage in producing viable nuclear weaponry. The Ministry also stated that it considered any attempt at a blockade as an “act of war that will be met with a decisive military response”, and would “counter ‘sanctions’ with retaliation and ‘confrontation’ with all-out confrontation.”
Kim Jong-il is not a man to be treated lightly. This is the man who, in 1978, ordered the kidnapping of South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok and his actress wife Choi Eun-hee, so that the two could inaugurate a North Korean film industry. He is the centre of a personality cult in the nation, subject to fanatical hero worship, either through genuine admiration or fear of reprisal for failure to pay homage. Concerns about North Korea and Kim Jong-il are considered serious enough that Bulletin of Atomic Scientists – the official guardians of the “Doomsday Clock” that predicts how close the world is to nuclear Armageddon – moved the Clock from seven minutes to five minutes to midnight – in large part due to the emergence of a nuclear-armed North Korea.
Anyone over the age of 30 remembers what it was like during the 1980s, when we lived with the belief that we were just one act of braggadocio away from nuclear annihilation. Movies like The Day After and The Terminator theorised a not-too-distant future nuclear holocaust. Does a nuclear North Korea portend a new era of nuclear brinksmanship? Will Sting write a song about Kim Jong-il? What can the UN do, if anything?
One of the hardest concepts to grasp about international law is its seeming voluntariness. While there might be rules that proscribe behaviour, such as those contained in the Statute of the International Criminal Court, it is up to States to decide if they want to be a party to those rules. Even when there are rules that we would all consider universal – the prohibition on genocide, for instance, States have violated these rules too – like in Rwanda in 1994. When sanctions and punishment comes in response to such acts, its usually long after the crimes have been perpetrated.
International law is not a hierarchical system; despite the UN being able to issue resolutions and declarations, only Security Council resolutions are binding – and even then, all of us can cite examples where States have blatantly ignored their obligations under international law – US conduct in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay are the more recent examples that come to mind. So how can such a constrained system hope to reign in the acts of potential rogues like North Korea? Moreover, what if North Korea’s grandstanding is more than mere bluster? Is the UN making matters worse by imposing harsher sanctions that it seems North Korea has no intention of complying with?
In 50 years’ time, it may well be revealed that North Korea’s missiles, paraded through the streets in regular, State-orchestrated fanfares, are just mock-ups; giant dummy missiles designed to intimidate the international community as “weapons of mass distraction”. Even though North Korea is nuclear-capable, it does not necessarily follow that it can cobble together a nuclear weapon like some perverse DIY project. The most recent nuclear test conducted by the North was indeed considerable, but did not come close to reaching the magnitude of a Hiroshima-type bomb.
In the final analysis, the UN is probably taking the right approach – the old “speak softly and carry a big stick” method. Kim has shown willingness in the past to negotiate regarding his country’s nuclear program, and this may well be nothing more than a bit of international posturing for attention. Let’s hope so.
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