May 2017 Monthly Forecast

Posted 28 April 2017
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ASIA

DPRK (North Korea)

Expected Council Action

In May, the chair of the 1718 Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Sanctions Committee, Ambassador Sebastiano Cardi (Italy), is due to brief Security Council members in consultations on the Committee’s work.  

Key Recent Developments

At press time, the Council was scheduled to hold a ministerial-level meeting on 28 April, chaired by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, to discuss denuclearisation of the DPRK amid growing concern about the recent escalation of tension on the Korean Peninsula. The Secretary-General was expected to brief. In a concept note, the US said the objective of the meeting would be to discuss ways to maximise the impact of existing Council measures and demonstrate resolve to respond to further provocations with significant new measures. 

Since Cardi’s last Council briefing on 27 February, the DPRK has conducted several ballistic missile launches and repeatedly threatened to use military force against the US and its allies. On 5 March, it fired four missiles into the sea off Japan’s northwest coast. On 19 March, Pyongyang announced it had tested a new rocket engine, described by Republic of Korea (ROK) officials as a technological breakthrough. Following a 21 March failed missile test, the DPRK conducted a successful launch on 4 April of what appeared to be a medium-range missile.  In a 7 April letter to the Council, the DPRK accused the US of engaging in “aggressive schemes” that amounted to a declaration of war and warned of a pre-emptive strike. 

In a 7 March press statement, Council members condemned the 5 March launches and noted, in a first, that such 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”. They reiterated the call for member states to redouble their efforts to implement UN sanctions. Similarly worded press statements were issued on 23 March and 6 April.

In addition, the DPRK has repeatedly warned of its intention to test another nuclear bomb. Most recently, at a press conference in New York on 18 April, the DPRK’s deputy permanent representative to the UN said that a nuclear test would take place “at a time and at a place where headquarters deems necessary”. A 12 April report from 38 North, a website devoted to analysis of the DPRK’s nuclear programme, confirmed that the Punggye-ri nuclear test site appeared to be ready for another test. There was speculation that Pyongyang would conduct such a test during the celebration of the birth of Kim Il-sung on 15 April, but instead it attempted unsuccessfully to fire another ballistic missile. Council members condemned the failed launch in a 20 April press statement in which they also explicitly demanded that the DPRK conduct no further nuclear tests.

In the face of these provocations and with the arrival of a new US administration that has signalled a tougher stance on the DPRK, discussions intensified among China, Japan, the ROK and the US about how to deal with the threat and de-escalate the situation. It was one of the main issues discussed when President Donald Trump (US) and President Xi Jinping (China) met on 4 April and in their subsequent phone calls on 12 and 24 April. On 17 and 18 April, US Vice President Mike Pence visited the ROK and on 19 April he went to Japan. He emphasised that “the era of strategic patience is over” and warned the DPRK not to test the resolve or military strength of the US. ROK media questioned the credibility of the US, however, when it emerged that an earlier announcement by US officials that the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson had been redirected towards the Korean Peninsula, referred to by Trump as the US “sending an armada”, turned out to be incorrect.

In other developments, on 7 March Malaysia presented an oral report to the executive council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on the possible use of the prohibited nerve agent VX in the 13 February killing of Kim Jung-un’s half-brother at the Kuala Lumpur airport. Malaysia said that a preliminary analysis had shown traces of VX on the deceased but that the investigation would continue. In a 9 March decision, the executive council expressed concern and requested the OPCW’s director-general to provide technical assistance to the government of Malaysia.

Sanctions-Related Developments

On 23 March, in resolution 2345, the Council renewed for another 13 months the mandate of the Panel of Experts assisting the 1718 Sanctions Committee. It requested the Panel to submit its mid-term report to the Committee by 5 August and its final report by 1 February 2018.

Over the past month, the Committee started a series of regional outreach meetings in New York. On 31 March the Committee met with the Group of Latin American and Caribbean Countries and on 10 April with the Eastern European Group. It was scheduled to hold subsequent meetings with the other regional groups. The meetings are being convened as a follow-up to paragraph 44 of resolution 2321, adopted in response to the 9 September 2016 nuclear test, which requested the Committee “to hold special meetings on important thematic and regional topics and member states’ capacity challenges”.

In a separate development, the US on 31 March announced sanctions designation for one entity and 11 individuals, citing their “continued violations” of Council resolutions.

Human Rights-Related Developments

In a statement during a 13 March interactive dialogue that the Human Rights Council (HRC) held on the DPRK, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, Tomás Ojea Quintana, maintained that although escalating tensions meant that the focus was increasingly on developments in the political and military arenas, it was still an appropriate time to address human rights concerns. However, Quintana warned there were “no quick fixes or instant solutions” to tackle the human rights violations. Noting that recent tensions had led the Security Council and neighbouring states to adopt new sanctions measures to address the DPRK’s development of nuclear and ballistic-missile technology, Quintana highlighted the potential human cost of sanctions. Quintana encouraged the Sanctions Committee to give “due consideration” to protecting the civilian population from the adverse consequences of sanctions measures designed to deter nuclear proliferation, as pledged in relevant Council resolutions.

On 24 March, the HRC adopted a resolution extending the mandate of the Special Rapporteur for one year.

Key Issues

A key issue for the Council is how to deal with the serious escalation in the threat posed by the DPRK. A further issue is whether the tightening of sanctions will eventually induce the DPRK to change its behaviour or whether a different approach would be more effective.

In the 1718 Sanctions Committee, ensuring strict implementation of the sanctions and responding to the findings of the Panel of Experts are the key issues. A further issue is the potential humanitarian impact of the sanctions, as highlighted by the Special Rapporteur on human rights.

Options

One option for the Council is to request the Secretary-General to use his good offices in attempting to bring about a freeze in the DPRK’s nuclear programme.

Another option is to remain focused on sanctions as the main tool for getting the DPRK to abandon its nuclear weapons programme, including by imposing additional  measures such as an oil embargo, a ban on hiring DPRK workers abroad, and further restrictions on transportation and exports.

In the Committee, the main option is to implement the Panel’s recommendations and continue with outreach activities.

Council and Wider Dynamics

It seems Russia did not initially agree to the press statement on the 15 April missile launch. While the original draft proposed by the US on 19 April mostly reiterated agreed language from previous press statements, it omitted a reference to dialogue when welcoming efforts to facilitate a peaceful and comprehensive solution. This was acceptable to China but not to Russia. The revised agreed text retained the reference to a peaceful solution through dialogue used in previous statements, but also added an explicit reference to sanctions as one of the “further significant measures” that the Council may take.

In terms of the larger picture, the Council meeting on 28 April may be helpful in clarifying the views of key members. The new US administration has signalled a tougher stance on the DPRK than the Obama administration, but the preliminary broad approach that has now apparently been approved by President Trump does not seem to represent a fundamental shift. Although US officials have repeatedly said that all options are on the table, including the use of military force, it seems the Trump administration remains focused on sanctions and on getting China to use its leverage, while maintaining the same conditions for the resumption of talks as before.

As for China, it 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. 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 signalled a readiness to impose further measures, including restrictions on oil, in the event of another nuclear test.

At the regional level, dynamics may be affected by the outcome of the presidential elections in the ROK on 9 May, reflecting differences between the leading candidates in how they propose to deal with the DPRK.   

The US is the penholder on the DPRK.

UN DOCUMENTS ON THE DPRK
Security Council Resolutions
23 March 2017 S/RES/2345 This resolution renewed for another 13 months the mandate of the Panel of Experts assisting the 1718 DPRK Sanctions Committee.
30 November 2016 S/RES/2321 This was a resolution on sanctions, in response to the DPRK’s 9 September 2016 nuclear test.
Security Council Press Statements
20 April 2017 SC/12801 Council members condemned the DPRK’s 15 April missile launch.
6 April 2017 SC/12780 Council members condemned the DPRK’s 4 April missile launch.
23 March 2017 SC/12763 This statement condemned the DPRK’s ballistic missile launch of 21 March and the ballistic missile engine test of 19 March.
7 March 2017 SC/12741 This was a press statement that condemned the ballistic missile launches conducted by the DPRK on 5 March.
Other
18 April 2017 S/2017/337 This letter transmitted the concept note for the 28 April Council meeting on the denuclearisation of the DPRK.
7 April 2017 S/2017/303 The DPRK sent a letter to the Council accusing the US of engaging in “aggressive schemes” that amounted to a declaration of war and warned of a pre-emptive strike.
24 March 2017 A/HRC/34/L.23 The Human Rights Council extended the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK for one year.
30 January 2017 S/2017/150 This was the Panel of Experts’ final report under resolution 2276.