The year has barely started and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea already has tested seven missiles, the latest on Sunday. None have been ICBMs capable of hitting America, so they don’t really count in Washington. But no one would mistake the shots as friendly acts.
Moreover, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, the third Kim to hold the DPRK throne, has indicated that he might eventually break his moratorium on nuclear and ICBM testing. Doing so probably would gain U.S. attention. The last time he did so, in late 2017, he elicited President Donald Trump’s famous threat of “fire and fury.”
Then came the short-lived love affair between the two leaders. Alas, it broke up before a deal could be consummated, and in January 2020 Kim essentially sanctioned his own country by sealing it against COVID-19. He appears to be relying on his big neighbor, the People’s Republic of China, for the energy and food necessary to keep his impoverished country afloat.
No one knows where his nuclear and missile programs will end up. But we do know where they could land, and it’s not a good spot, at least for anyone other than the Kim dynasty. Warned the Rand Corporation and Asan Institutein a recent report:
Despite some ROK and U.S. efforts to enhance defense and deterrence, there is a growing gap between the North Korean nuclear weapon threat and ROK and U.S. capabilities to defeat it.… [B]y 2027, North Korea could have 200 nuclear weapons and several dozen intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and hundreds of theater missiles for delivering the nuclear weapons. The ROK and the United States are not prepared, and do not plan to be prepared, to deal with the coercive and warfighting leverage that these weapons would give North Korea.
That would put the North ahead of Israel, India, and Pakistan, just under the United Kingdom, and in the general range of France and China. Not enough to attack the U.S., since there is no evidence that Kim is suicidal, desiring to leave this world atop a radioactive funeral pyre. However, such an arsenal would be a potent deterrent, especially if Kim possessed accurate ICBMs topped with multiple independent reentry vehicles. Imagine nukes hitting Seoul, Tokyo, Guam, Commonwealth of Northern Marianna Islands, Okinawa, U.S. bases elsewhere in the region, and cities across America, with a few warheads to spare.
Denuclearization and broader disarmament obviously are worthy goals, but almost no one believes that Kim will yield his nukes, though he might make a deal to cap his arsenal. This judgment does not rest upon the unique malignity of the North Korean system, but common sense. Only the threat of nuclear retaliation is sure to prevent a U.S. attack, whether nuclear or conventional, which otherwise could oust him and reunify the peninsula.
Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, said having the DPRK preside over a disarmament conference is like “putting a serial rapist in charge of a women’s shelter.”
So the DPRK remains the now and forever land of bad options. U.S. and allied policymakers debate what to do about the North, but war would be disastrous and sanctions have failed, even when reinforced by Kim quarantining his own nation. Which leaves diplomacy and an attempt to strike a deal. The result wouldn’t be denuclearization, but still might result in some restrictions lessening the danger. At least, it’s worth trying.
However, one policy that no one who knows anything about the North would propose is having the DPRK chair a session of the United Nations Conference on Disarmament. According to the UN’s Office for Disarmament Affairs, “The Conference on Disarmament (CD), was recognized … [in 1978] as a single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum of the international community.” The CD concentrates on these seven topics:
- Cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament.
- Prevention of nuclear war, including all related matters.
- Prevention of an arms race in outer space.
- Effective international arrangements to assure non-nuclear-weapon States against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.
- New types of weapons of mass destruction and new systems of such weapons; radiological weapons.
- Comprehensive programme of disarmament.
- Transparency in armaments.
No doubt, the North knows a lot about these issues, but entirely from the wrong perspective. That is, by resisting disarmament. Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, said having the DPRK preside over a disarmament conference is like “putting a serial rapist in charge of a women’s shelter.” After all, Pyongyang withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, staged six nuclear tests and scores of missile tests, and sold missile and nuclear technology to other nations, including Iran and Syria. North Korea is leading the arms race, has threatened to use nuclear weapons, is developing new types of weapons, opposes disarmament, and resists weapons transparency, even banning foreigners from taking pictures during its frequent military parades. Unless the DPRK plans to model what not to do, why is it chairing the conference?
Pyongyang isn’t the only dubious country tasked with running (as “president”) the conference for four weeks, though the other countries are merely tyrannies that are not ostentatiously resisting UN-mandated disarmament. China is the current president. Cuba presides in March. The Democratic Republic of the Congo gets a go in July. North Korea’s term is June.
The CD’s defense is that everyone attending the meetings gets to be president at some point. In fact, the position rotates in alphabetical order, using the English version of country names. That procedure must violate all sorts of woke rules — why should English, which owes its global dominance to colonialism through the United Kingdom and more modern imperialism embodied by America, determine anything? When will the oppressed peoples of the world, or at least the UN, the last great hope of mankind, and so on and so forth, break free from the chains of a language which is just another form of white supremacy? Etcetera, etcetera. It is amazing the UN is still so behind the politically correct times!
Anyway, the rules mean that CD member Iran, another country with disarmament issues, will eventually get its chance. So will India and Pakistan, which defied the U.S. and rest of the fabled “international community” to develop nuclear weapons. Among other, more disreputable, thuggish members include Russia, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Burma/Myanmar, Kazakhstan, Venezuela, and Turkey.
The best that can be said about the forthcoming North Korean presidency is that whatever its intentions, the North can’t do much bad. The position is largely ministerial. However, it makes a mockery of a conference supposed to be dedicated to disarmament. It isn’t the first, and won’t be the last, time something like this has happened at the UN.
And lest you suspect that the CD is another useless international bureaucracy maintained by taxpayers in wealthy states, you’d be right. In the far past the CD and preceding organizations produced some arms control agreements. However, admitted the UN, “The Conference on Disarmament has not negotiated an instrument on its agenda for the past two and a half decades.” With countries like North Korea presiding, perhaps that should come as no surprise. And it does raise the obvious question: What is the purpose of the CD if it never actually produces anything, other than a blizzard of paperwork?
UN Watch urged Western ambassadors to boycott sessions overseen by Pyongyang and intends to protest during the North’s presidency, highlighting North Korean human rights violations. This would also be a good time to assess the future of UN organizations and meetings which have long outlived their usefulness while showcasing the worst of humanity.
The DPRK in charge of a disarmament conference? Unfortunately, until serious reform comes to the United Nations, it will be just another boring day in Manhattan’s Turtle Bay neighborhood.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.