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China relents but cannot stop North Korea from weapon proliferation

Rajaram Panda was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • November 12, 2010

    North Korea’s nuclear weapons development programme has remained a worry for the world. Global efforts to rein in Pyongyang have yielded little results and the ‘rogue’ state continues to defy the world. What moreover worries the rest of the world is North Korea’s support for Syria, Myanmar, Iran and Pakistan in their nuclear weapons development programmes. The only country, China, which can probably halt Pyongyang’s nuclear programme and its support to other countries, continues to remain a suspect in its sincerity to do so.

    For the past several months, the UN Security Council had been working to prepare a report to study the alleged North Korean transfer of ballistic missiles and nuclear technology to Syria, Iran and Myanmar. China, the ally of North Korea, blocked the release of the report for almost six months but finally agreed to its release in early November 2010. The report reinforces US claims that North Korea has emerged as a key supplier of banned nuclear weapons materials to these three countries.

    The 75-page report by the so-called Panel of Experts on Pyongyang’s compliance with UN sanctions was delivered to the Security Council’s North Korea sanctions committee in May 2010. Normally such reports, when completed, are reviewed and then passed on to the Security Council for consideration of possible action, but the report went into limbo for six months following objections by China.

    What were the reasons behind this Chinese stance? The Chinese objection to the report’s early release was because of its misplaced self-confidence in international diplomacy which ultimately failed to face the rigour of world pressure. The world was more or less convinced in May 2010 itself that North Korea, already under UN sanctions for testing nuclear devices in 2006 and again in 2009, had become a proliferator of banned technology. Finally, when in the first week of November 2010, the 15-nations on the Security Council asked if any one had any objections to the report, surprisingly China chose to keep silent as its priorities had probably shifted. It is unclear, however, if the UN Security Council would decide on further sanctions based on the findings in the report, as China’s support will remain doubtful.

    Among China’s other priorities could be blocking a similar report by another UN panel of experts on compliance with an arms embargo for Sudan’s deadly conflict-torn western Darfur region. This is because, unlike the one on North Korea, Chinese firms are suspected of violating the Darfur arms embargo and China fears embarrassment if the facts come out in the open. In fact, China felt strongly about the report on Sudan and prevailed upon the panel committee to stall the process of submission to the Security Council for action. The tracing of Chinese bullets at the site of attacks against the UN-African Union peacekeepers proves China’s involvement. Each member of the sanctions committee has a virtual veto power and if consensus eludes, the panel report may not be published.

    The Chinese decision not to bloc all sanctions reports could be a deliberate strategy to send a wrong message to the world. Though China allowed the Council to impose sanctions on North Korea in 2009, it refused to expand the 2005 arms embargo in Sudan. China also joined Russia when Britain and the US attempted to impose sanctions in 2008 on Zimbabwe’s leaders. Further, China objected to the US and British stance on sanctioning Myanmar’s military junta for human rights abuse. It is a different matter that the elections held in Myanmar after 20 years were “insufficiently inclusive, participatory and transparent” as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon put it.

    Indeed, there has been widespread concern for years about North Korea. There is no disputing the fact that if radical states and terrorists lay their hands on weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it will be a threat to world security. Multilateral regimes to restrict trade in nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and missile technologies have not proved to be successful always. North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003 and tested nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009. Iran failed to comply with its treaty obligations in 2005. The discovery of the nuclear black market network run by Pakistan’s A. Q. Khan spurred world leaders to design new measures to strengthen the regime, including greater restrictions on sensitive technology.

    The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) was created in 1987 with the aim of limiting the spread of missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Though it has no enforcement organization, yet it succeeded in blocking several missile programmes. But it has failed to stop North Korean missile development, production, and exports, or to win the full cooperation of Russian and Chinese entities.

    In his recently-published memoirs, Decision Points, former US President George W. Bush reveals that in 2007 US intelligence determined that Syria had built a nuclear reactor with North Korean help. Citing the memoir, a recent Washington Post report mentions that Israeli jets destroyed the reactor when then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s request to the US to bomb the facility was rebuffed. Of course, Olmert “hadn’t asked for a green light.” As regards North Korea, Bush, then in office, warned then Chinese President Jiang Zemin in February 2003 that the US would review the launch of a military attack on North Korea if the nuclear problem was not resolved diplomatically. Bush asked Jiang to form a united front against North Korea after gaining intelligence on Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. Jiang rejected the request, citing that exerting influence on North Korea was a complex matter. Pyongyang remained undeterred and went ahead with its planned programme of test-firing a long-range missile in July 2006 and drew international attention and opprobrium.

    The significance of China reversing its stance on the panel report’s release cannot be overlooked as it came two days before President Obama was to meet Chinese President Hu Jintao in Seoul where the two leaders are attending a summit of the Group of 20 major economies. The US and its allies in East Asia – Japan and South Korea – have been the strongest proponents of imposing tough UN sanctions to rein in Pyongyang with the objective of persuading the communist regime to curtail its nuclear ambitions. Though China supported in 2009 the adoption of the resolution of the UN Security Council to enforce measures to curb North Korea’s trade in nuclear and ballistic missile technology, its private posture has been otherwise. It is uncomfortable with public disclosure of the findings, which are highly sensitive as those would expose Chinese complicity, as has been a test case in Sudan. The gainer in the process remains North Korea, as it continues with its own weapon development programme regardless of what world opinion may be and no matter if its economy continues to be on the brink.