What's In Blue

Posted Wed 11 Dec 2019

Non-Proliferation (DPRK) Briefing

This afternoon (11 December), the Security Council will hold an open briefing on non-proliferation focused on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The US, also the president of the Council this month, requested the meeting citing recent ballistic missile tests by the DPRK. A representative of the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) is expected to brief.

On 7 December, the DPRK conducted what it called a “very important” test at one of its launching stations. While it did not disclose specific details, the DPRK said that the test will help change the country’s strategic position in the near future. According to media reports, the test involved a ground-based, fuel propelled missile engine that has potential use for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Given the lack of access to the DPRK, it is unlikely that a representative from DPPA will be able to provide more information to the Council beyond what has been reported in the media.

The meeting comes at a volatile time in relations between the US and the DPRK. In recent weeks, the DPRK has stepped up its hostile rhetoric while also increasing the rate of ballistic missile tests. In addition to the 7 December test, the DPRK has conducted thirteen separate ballistic missile tests over the past six months. The US administration has generally tried to downplay the importance of these incidents while pursuing diplomatic efforts with the DPRK. The EU members of the Council, however, appear to have taken the initiative in bringing greater attention to this issue.

Since August, these members have consistently called on the Council to follow up on the DPRK’s missile launches. After Council members met under “any other business” on 4 December to discuss the latest missile launches by the DPRK, the EU members of the Council, including incoming member Estonia, issued a joint statement condemning the provocative actions by the DPRK while also emphasising that ballistic missile launches represent a clear violation of Security Council resolutions. These members are likely to take a similar position during the meeting today.

Some Council members were anticipating a meeting this week on the human rights situation in the DPRK. With the exception of 2018, the Council has held formal meetings on this issue every December since 2014. Each time, however, the discussion of the agenda item “the situation in the DPRK” has required a procedural vote in order to be included on the programme of work. (Council decisions of a procedural nature need nine affirmative votes to be adopted, and the veto does not apply.) In the past, China has made clear that it does not see the Council as a forum for discussing human rights issues, which it says should not be politicised. It has also maintained that the discussion of human rights in the DPRK is detrimental to the goal of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Russia has supported China in opposing Council discussion of this issue.

Last week, it appears that eight members firmly supported holding the meeting on human rights and that a ninth member, the US, was expected to lend its support. However, the US did not make any commitments, such as adding its signature to the letter requesting the meeting that had already been signed by the eight members. At the 6 December press conference on this month’s programme of work, US Ambassador Kelly Craft said that no decision had been made on whether to hold the meeting. It became clear early this week that the US would not support the initiative, however.

The Council broke with the practice of holding annual meetings on the human rights situation in the DPRK in 2018 due to insufficient support from Council members. At the time, it seemed that those in favor of the initiative were short of the nine votes needed for passing the procedural motion. While the US publicly supported holding the meeting, it appeared reluctant to pursue this issue assertively given the potentially negative consequences on its diplomatic negotiations with the DPRK. A similar dynamic appears to have informed the US decision this year.

While non-proliferation issues are likely to dominate the discussion today, some members could also use the opportunity to address aspects of the human rights situation in the DPRK.

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