What’s most striking about North Korea’s latest act of war—and ongoing low-grade war against South Korea—is what it says about the United Nations in specific and multilateralism in general.
It pays to recall that North Korea is lashing out at its democratic neighbor not in response to a go-it-alone, cowboy foreign policy in Washington, but in the context of a wholly multilateral approach on the part of two consecutive administrations—an approach that has utterly failed.
Before getting into the myth of multilateralism—and how to respond to Pyongyang—it’s instructive to recap the litany of North Korean misconduct.
Since January 2009, North Korea has detonated a nuclear weapon; test-fired long-range missiles; declared that it no longer is bound by the armistice that brought a cessation to hostilities in 1953; torpedoed and sunk a South Korean ship, the Chenoan, in international waters, killing 46 sailors; fired artillery shells into South Korean waters; and coyly revealed the existence of yet another nuclear facility.
The latest act of war, the 90-minute artillery and rocket attack on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killed two South Korean marines, injured 14 and destroyed 60 buildings. Calling the North’s assault “a premeditated, intentional illegal attack,” South Korea responded with an artillery barrage of its own.
In the face of these continual affronts, the UN has done virtually nothing. The most embarrassing example of UN fecklessness and worthlessness vis-à-vis North Korea came this past summer, after the unprovoked attack on the Chenoan. The best UN diplomats could muster was a pathetic report condemning the attack on the ROK ship without condemning the attacker.
Of course, the problems at the UN began long before this latest spasm of North Korean mischief.
The UN Security Council’s responsibility, according to the UN Charter, is “the maintenance of international peace and security.” After more than a half-century of failure, it’s safe to say that it’s not working. Of the dozens of wars and threats that emerged since its founding, the UNSC was able to mobilize for concerted action on arguably just two occasions: Korea in 1950 and Kuwait in 1990. Of course, the first was a fluke, thanks to Moscow’s shortsighted decision to boycott a UNSC session; and the second proved to be a post-Cold War aberration. The UN failed in Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq—and that was just in the 1990s. It took eight weeks in 2002 for the Security Council just to agree on a resolution requiring Iraq to comply with existing resolutions. Once it passed, half the Security Council refused to enforce it.
“It gets even better,” as French president Nicolas Sarkozy sarcastically observed last year, during a blistering critique of the UN’s record in North Korea and Iran. The North Koreans “have violated all Security Council deliberations since 1993, and they disregard everything that the international community says, everything. What’s more, they are continuing their ballistic tests,” he intoned.
“Since 2005, Iran has violated five Security Council resolutions,” he explained. “An offer of dialogue was made in 2005, an offer of dialogue was made in 2006, an offer of dialogue was made in 2007, an offer of dialogue was made in 2008, and another one was made in 2009…What did the international community gain from these offers of dialogue? Nothing. More enriched uranium, more centrifuges.”
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