On 30th July 2017, in the immediate aftermath of North Korea’s latest ballistic missile test, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, published a portentous statement saying that the US would not seek an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the North Korean test or additional sanctions against North Korea.
Nikki Haley’s words in her statement bear some repeating
There is no point in having an emergency session if it produces nothing of consequence. North Korea is already subject to numerous Security Council resolutions that they violate with impunity and that are not complied with by all UN Member States. An additional Security Council resolution that does not significantly increase the international pressure on North Korea is of no value.
A few weeks later and the UN Security Council has met and has voted unanimously for further sanctions on North Korea.
What happened to cause the US to change its mind?
Firstly, the wording of Nikki Haley’s statement shows quite clearly that the US – or at least Nikki Haley – believed that no further UN Security Council resolution was necessary because the existing UN Security Council resolutions were more than sufficient to force North Korea into line but were not being complied with by various “UN Member States” – a transparent reference to China.
The fact that the UN Security Council – including Nikki Haley – have just voted for a further resolution that purports to tighten sanctions on North Korea shows that either this was wrong or that the US has changed its mind.
I say this because it is difficult to read in the latest sanctions package the “significant increase in international pressure on North Korea” that Nikki Haley was talking about.
The latest sanctions are supposed to reduce North Korea’s annual export earnings by a third, from $3 billion to $2 billion.
This figure however looks historic and wrong.
The major export targeted by the latest sanctions is North Korea’s coal exports to China. China is however supposed to have suspended its imports of North Korean coal at the start of the year. Whilst I have some doubts about the extent to which that actually happened, Western commentators insist that was the case.
If so the latest sanctions banning North Korean coal exports to China merely codify a situation which is already existing, and cannot reduce North Korean export earnings by a third from their current level,
Since China is supposed to have stopped importing North Korean coal at the start of this year North Korea has carried out two tests of what are supposed to be an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Clearly the ban on North Korean coal exports to China which has just been codified has not affected North Korean behaviour by dissuading North Korea from carrying out ballistic missile tests. There is no reason to suppose it will do so.
This is not to say that the latest sanctions are completely toothless. On the contrary the ban on joint ventures with North Korean companies is a heavy blow, which will restrict foreign investment in the future. However that investment is not happening anyway, so whilst this ban may one day become a serious problem for North Korea, it does not change anything now.
If the new sanctions do not therefore represent a “significant increase in international pressure on North Korea” why did the US reverse its position by agreeing to them?
Needless to say there has been no explanation about this from the US, and no discussion of it by anyone else. However the best guess is that the Chinese and the Russians insisted on the UN Security Council having its say, and the US was in no position to say no because the US’s only two other options – a military strike on North Korea, or a trade war with China to force China to ramp up pressure on North Korea – come at an unacceptable cost.
If this analysis is correct – and I can see no other explanation for the recent actions – then it means that the US has lost the diplomatic initiative to China in handling the North Korean question.
The Chinese wanted the UN Security Council involved in deciding the North Korean question because like the Russians the Chinese insist on the UN Security Council’s primacy in deciding international questions.
The Chinese have made no secret of their strong disapproval of the North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests and of the fact that they want them stopped, so far from resisting the UN Security Council sending a strong signal about the tests to North Korea the Chinese will have insisted on it.
The Chinese do not however want the sanctions to be so severe that they will put North Korea’s political stability or very existence in jeopardy, and they have have made sure that the latest sanctions are pitched at exactly the level where neither of these things will happen.
The US – increasingly short of options in dealing with North Korea – has been forced to go along.
The Chinese in the meantime have made clear what route they want the contending parties in this crisis – North Korea and the US – to follow. They have again used the latest UN Security Council meeting to make clear that the option of regime change in North Korea is ruled out, and that they want direct negotiations between North Korea and the US. They also want North Korea to suspend its ballistic missile and nuclear tests and the US to end what China sees as its provocative military exercises in South Korea.
In the longer term the Chinese want North Korea and the US to agree a formal peace treaty with each other, with North Korea and the US normalising relations by opening embassies in each others’ capitals. and the US withdrawing all its forces including its THAAD anti ballistic missile interceptors from South Korea.
In seeking these objectives the Chinese have the support of the Russians and of some other east Asian states and quite possibly of the new South Korean President as well.
Some officials in the US – notably US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – have hinted that they too would like to follow this route. Tillerson has even publicly spoken of the US not seeking regime change in North Korea.
However on past experience opposition in the US is likely to be intense. With the Trump administration paralysed, no one can be optimistic that the US is in any position to move forward in this way.
If the US however fails to do so then at some point the Chinese – and not just the Chinese, but quite possibly other east Asian states as well – may decide that the obstacles standing in the way to a peaceful settlement of the conflict in the Korean Peninsula are to be found in Washington rather than Pyongyang.