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Could the Kim-Trump meeting in Singapore on Tuesday displace the United Nations Security Council’s mandate to regulate the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, as the United States succeeded in doing when it withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal?
Chances of abolishing the UN sanctions regime on North Korea without the Council having the last word appear pretty slim. As long as the role of the US-North Korean meeting on June 12 remains as foggy as the chances for the denuclearization of North Korea, the Council’s responsibilities are not likely to be an issue. Nevertheless, a more serious loss of control looms in the US-North Korean world of mirages.
What, for example, does denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula even mean? North Korea wants the US to remove its nuclear arsenal from the Koreas. The US government pretends that Chairman Kim Jong Un will give up his nuclear and ballistic missiles with the right incentives. Nikki Haley, the US envoy to the UN, insinuates that “the world is united behind @POTUS’s objective of complete, verifiable, & irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
Down on planet earth, reality hits as CVID — complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization — of the US forces or North Korea’s will be a nonstarter for a long time to come in Washington and in Pyongyang. So while staging teams are busy across the world preparing for the nuclear disarmament show in Singapore, North Korea is setting up what many people believe are new, secret nuclear storage, production and launching sites.
In the impenetrable mountain region of Chagang Province, a 6,400-square-mile Special Songun Revolutionary Zone — a top-secret military enclave — has been cordoned off with “plenty of opportunities for underground excavations to conceal stockpiles of weapons and facilities to conduct further research,” reported The Korea Times.
The Chagang region, bordering China, has mythological status among North Koreans. It is where Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung dug in to stop the advancing American and South Korean armies during the Korean War, until Chinese troops came to his rescue. The entire province is now dotted with factories where centrifuges, chemical weapons, missiles and their mobile launchers are manufactured. Underground facilities are suspected of holding North Korea’s arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles, while the next generation of military officers is trained in academies nearby.
These developments attest to the wily nature of Kim, including the recent photogenic detonation of the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site and the Iha-ri Ballistic Missile Training and Test Facility. Billed as Kim’s pre-summit suspension of ballistic missile and nuclear tests, the more likely reason the sites were obliterated is that Kim no longer needs to test his nuclear and missile arsenal.
Instead, by moving the arsenal into a top-secret, remote military zone, Kim is anticipating that an eventual peace treaty, along with a phased denuclearization of his country, will also mean the winding down of all sanctions. But the winding-down period will take years of inspections by international inspectors, perhaps from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, perhaps from other organizations.
Kim, however, foresees correctly that North Korea cannot be expected — as is standard for any country — to grant international inspectors access to top-secret military installations. That will not happen unless the US allows reciprocal inspections on US military basis, submarines, aircrafts and maritime vessels operating within a certain radius around the Korean peninsula. That will never happen, either.
Other obstacles involving the role of the Security Council loom even larger over the US-North Korea talks. Unlike with the US canceling the Iran nuclear deal and thus snubbing the Security Council, such behavior will not be an option in resolving the conflict with North Korea. If by a miracle the June 12 negotiations yield an inkling of peace, including a path toward denuclearization, the road will lead inevitably to the UN’s most important body.
Even if the US removes its own sanctions, unwinding UN sanctions under Resolution 1718 requires Council consent. It will also require the agreement of China and Russia. Article 27 of the UN Charter stipulates that “an affirmative vote of nine members including the concurring votes of the permanent members” is required for a decision of the Council.
President Trump will be forced, therefore, to kowtow to the interests of China and Russia, unless he is willing to risk losing his Korea peace possibilities and his chance for a Nobel Peace Prize. Ensuring that China and Russia do not veto a peace deal in the Security Council could burden the US-Korean talks to the breaking point, except that Kim is already conspiring openly with Russia and China. They see an opportunity to stop the US historic projection of power in Asia.
“I highly value the fact that Putin’s administration strictly opposes the US’ dominance,” Kim professed to Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, during their recent meeting in Pyongyang, according to the Russian news agency Tass.
At the same time, Russia is calculating it will play a long but exceedingly lucrative game during peace talks. Part of Lavrov’s vision unites Russia with both Koreas’ Pacific ports by a continental railway link, gas pipelines and electric power grids, according to China Daily.
Tired of its role as the US sanctions enforcer, of Trump’s tariff attacks and of US military challenges to its territorial expansion in the South China Sea, China is not waiting for the results of a Trump-Kim deal, either. Rather than adhering to UN sanctions or Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign pushed by the Security Council over the last year, China has reopened most of its border trade, licit or illicit, with North Korea.
According to The New York Times, the purpose of Kim’s surprise visit with President Xi Jinping in Dalian, China, last month was to discuss the economic development, financing and rebuilding of “the North’s primitive roads and ports.”
These intense Korean-Russian and Korean-Chinese dialogues illustrate to Kim that getting rid of America’s influence in Korea will ensure he is the long-term winner. Even more compelling opportunities will be displayed right up to the Singapore summit meeting, with the gathering of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Qingdao, China, having taken place this weekend.
For the first time, the founding members of the organization — China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — will welcome India and Pakistan as powerful new members. This massive expansion cements the organization’s claim as an economic powerhouse of the most populous nations, capable of challenging the “universal” principles imposed by Western counterparts. (Amina Mohammed, the UN deputy secretary-general, also attended.)
As Alexander Cooley writes in the current issue of The Diplomat, the summit meeting in China is expected to announce not only a five-year plan to carry out the Treaty on Long-Term Good Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation, but its members will also announce far-reaching security cooperation agreements. These will signal to North Korea the true meaning of security.
North Korea’s slipping into the realm of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — effectively a rival organization to the UN — could further erode Security Council prerogatives to maintaining international peace and security. That includes nonproliferation monitoring regimes.
The P5 Monitor column examines the actions of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, Britain, China, France, Russia and the US. We welcome your comments: email@example.com or in the space below.
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