posted on Thu 27 Apr 2017 1:58 PM
Ministerial-level Meeting on the DPRK (North Korea)

Tomorrow morning (28 April), the Security Council will hold a ministerial-level meeting with a briefing by the Secretary-General to discuss denuclearisation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The meeting will be chaired by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and is expected to be attended by the foreign ministers of several Council members, including China, Ethiopia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Senegal and the UK. The foreign minister of the Republic of Korea (ROK) is also scheduled to speak.

This initiative appears to be part of a concerted effort by the new US administration under President Donald Trump to signal a tougher stance in dealing with the threat posed by the DPRK, which he has made clear is among his top foreign policy priorities. This meeting follows discussions on the DPRK between Trump and Council members at the White House on Monday (24 April), where Trump said the status quo was unacceptable and that the Council must be prepared to impose additional sanctions.

The decision to hold such a meeting can also be seen as a response to the recent spike in tensions on the Korean Peninsula and heightened concern that the DPRK is ready to conduct another nuclear test at any moment. Over the past few weeks, the situation has continued to escalate, with the DPRK on 15 April celebrating the birth of its founding leader Kim Il-sung with a military parade displaying what appeared to be new types of ballistic missiles, and on 25 April marking the 85th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army with large-scale live-fire military drills. Also, according to 38 North, a website devoted to analysis of the DPRK, the Punggye-ri nuclear test site appears to be ready for another nuclear test. Meanwhile, the US has increased its military activities in the region, including joint exercises with Japan and the ROK, and on 26 April started to install in the ROK the first parts of its Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense System – the controversial anti-missile system referred to as THAAD, which China and Russia oppose.

Council members seem generally to welcome the US initiative as they are growing increasingly frustrated with the DPRK’s defiance of the Council’s demands. Despite the Council’s strengthening of sanctions last year in resolutions 2270 and 2321, Pyongyang appears to have continued to advance its nuclear programme, while engaging in increasingly bellicose rhetoric, repeatedly warning of its intention to conduct another nuclear test and threatening a pre-emptive strike against the US and its allies, including in a 7 April letter to the Council (S/2017/303). So far this year, the DPRK has already conducted eight ballistic missile launches in violation of the ban imposed by the Council in its various resolutions. On 11 February, it fired an intermediate range rocket which appeared to be an upgraded, extended-range version of the submarine-launched missile it tested last August and was propelled by a solid fuel engine, representing a significant step up from the liquid fuel models the DPRK has used in the past. It also conducted four successful missile launches on 5 March and one on 4 April, while there were two failed tests on 21 March and 15 April. In addition, the DPRK tested a new rocket engine on 19 March which was described by ROK officials as a technological breakthrough.

In a now established pattern, the Council’s reaction has been limited to a series of press statements. In a 13 February statement using familiar language (SC/12716), Council members condemned the 11 February missile launch as a grave violation and called on states to redouble their efforts to implement the sanctions imposed by the Council, in particular the comprehensive measures of resolutions 2270 and 2321. There have been four subsequent statements: on 7 March (SC/ 12741), 23 March (SC/12763), 6 April (SC/12780) and 20 April (12801). Although much of the language has been the same, there has been a sharpening in tone. The 7 March statement noted for the first time that the DPRK’s activities contribute to increasing tensions in the region and beyond as well as to the risk of a regional arms race, and emphasised the importance of the DPRK’s “showing sincere commitment to denuclearisation”. The 20 April statement explicitly demanded that the DPRK conduct no further nuclear tests and expressed the Council’s readiness to impose additional sanctions.

With this in mind, the meeting tomorrow is seen by some members as a way for the Council to signal that it is shifting away from what has so far been a largely reactive pattern to a more offensive approach. They are likely to share the assertion made by the US in the concept note circulated in preparation for the meeting (S/2017/337) that “the DPRK’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction represents one of the gravest threats to international peace and security the Security Council faces”. According to the note, additional international pressure is required to change DPRK’s behavior and it is therefore time for UN member states to make clear that further provocations are unacceptable. Council members are invited “to discuss ways to maximize the impact of existing Council measures and show their resolve to respond to further provocations with significant new measures.” They are also invited to recommit to implementing all existing and future sanctions to maximise pressure on the country to return to meaningful negotiations on denuclearisation.

The meeting tomorrow can therefore be expected to send some strong messages to the regime in Pyongyang and serve to further articulate the views of key Council members,. As for the US position, despite the Trump administration’s tougher tone and US Vice President Mike Pence’s recent statement that “the era of strategic patience is over”, the new approach resulting from the recently completed policy review does not seem to represent a fundamental shift from the previous administration. While US officials have repeatedly said that all options are on the table, including the use of military force, it seems the US remains focused on sanctions and on getting China to use its leverage, as made clear by Trump in his recent meeting and phone calls with Chinese president Xi Jinping, while maintaining the same conditions for the resumption of talks as before. A joint statement issued by Tillerson, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats following an unprecedented briefing on 26 April for all members of the US senate on the DPRK policy review, said that the US was engaging with the international community “to increase pressure on the DPRK in order to convince the regime to de-escalate and return to the path of dialogue” and remained open to negotiations. The meeting tomorrow will provide an opportunity for the US to further explain its approach.

The statements by China and Russia will be closely watched. China appears to be growing increasingly impatient and willing to put more pressure on its recalcitrant neighbour, including through a strict interpretation of the ban on the import of coal as indicated by its recent suspension of further coal transfers. It has continued to emphasise the need to resolve the nuclear issue through dialogue, reiterating calls for direct talks between the US and the DPRK, but it has also signaled a readiness to impose further measures, including restrictions on oil, in the event of another nuclear test. As for Russia, it seems that it has recently been less willing than in the past to follow China’s lead on the DPRK in the Council, insisting that the initial draft press statement prepared by the US on the most recent missile launch and agreed to by China, be revised to reinstate a reference to dialogue as being part of a solution.

The Secretary-General in his briefing is expected to share his assessment of recent developments in the region while highlighting the DPRK’s continued violations of its international legal obligations and its destabilising behaviour. He may also talk about the continuing serious human rights situation and humanitarian challenges in the country. In a statement on 26 April, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, Tomás Ojea Quintana, made an urgent appeal for a de-escalation of the tensions on the Korean Peninsula, noting that “the recent rise in conflict rhetoric is worsening already critical human rights challenges in north Korea” and calling for a restoration of dialogue.

The humanitarian situation also remains very difficult, with sanctions reported to negatively impact aid delivery. The UN country team for the DPRK said in a recent report on the country’s humanitarian needs that an estimated 18 million people out of a population of 25 million are dependent on government food rations, while 10.5 million are believed to be malnourished. It noted that the sanctions imposed on the DPRK had unintentionally caused disruption to humanitarian activities by making it difficult to transfer funds into the country through established banking channels and delaying the procurement of equipment due to the need to ensure that supplies are not on the sanctions list. According to the report, these factors had led to a radical decline in donor funding since 2012.