What's In Blue

Posted Thu 30 May 2024

DPRK (North Korea): Open Briefing

Tomorrow morning (31 May), the Security Council will convene for an open briefing on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Assistant Secretary-General for the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific Mohamed Khaled Khiari is expected to brief. France, Japan, Malta, the Republic of Korea (ROK), the UK, and the US requested the meeting following the DPRK’s unsuccessful satellite launch earlier this week.

On Monday (27 May), the DPRK announced that its latest attempt to launch a military reconnaissance satellite had failed. DPRK state media is said to have reported that “the launch of the new satellite carrier rocket failed when it exploded in mid-air during the flight of the first stage” and that the rocket used in the launch had utilised a new “liquid oxygen and petroleum engine”. Japan and the ROK confirmed that the attempt had been unsuccessful, with ROK officials noting that debris from the rocket had been detected in the sea soon after the launch.

The DPRK has now attempted to launch a reconnaissance satellite on four occasions during the last year. The first two attempts, which took place on 29 May 2023 and 24 August 2023, were also unsuccessful, while the third attempt on 24 November 2023 succeeded in sending a satellite into orbit. The Security Council convened for an open briefing following each of these launches.

Monday’s launch came shortly after the conclusion of the first trilateral meeting among leaders of China, Japan, and the ROK since 2019. In a joint declaration issued following the summit, the three countries noted that they had “reaffirmed that maintaining peace, stability and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia serves our common interest and is our common responsibility” and reiterated their positions “on regional peace and stability, denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, and the abductions issue”. The DPRK subsequently condemned the joint declaration, describing it as “grave political provocation” and a violation of its sovereignty.

Yesterday (29 May), the DPRK fired a barrage of short-range ballistic missiles towards the Sea of Japan. According to ROK officials, approximately ten missiles travelled for 350 kilometres before landing in the ocean. Council members are likely to condemn these launches in their statements tomorrow.

Tomorrow’s meeting will take place just over a month after the expiration of the mandate of the Panel of Experts assisting the 1718 DPRK Sanctions Committee. On 28 March, Russia vetoed a draft resolution that would have extended the Panel’s mandate for another year, until 30 April 2025. (For more information, see our 22 March What’s in Blue story.) Council members are still considering how to respond to the expiration of the Panel’s mandate. It appears that several options are being considered, including the possibility of establishing an alternative mechanism through the General Assembly.

The Council is deeply divided over the DPRK. The P3 (France, the UK, and the US) and other like-minded countries, including Japan and the ROK, support using sanctions to manage the threat posed by the DPRK and often call on member states to comply with existing Council resolutions. Many of these members have accused the DPRK of escalating tensions, while urging it to engage in dialogue and abandon its weapons programmes. Some of these members also call for the Council to show unity and respond to the DPRK’s weapons tests and argue that China and Russia have emboldened it by blocking Council action on the file.

China and Russia, on the other hand, blame the US for heightening tensions and accuse it of not doing enough to incentivise the DPRK to participate in denuclearisation talks. These two members have also contended that sanctions should be eased because of their impact on the humanitarian situation in the DPRK.

The divisions between Council members were evident during the negotiations on the US draft resolution on the mandate of the Panel of Experts assisting the 1718 DPRK Sanctions Committee. In a statement delivered before the vote on this draft, Russia claimed that the Panel has ceased to carry out its obligations and said that the sanctions regime no longer reflects realities on the ground, imposes a heavy burden on the population of the DPRK, and has failed to achieve the international community’s stated aims. It further argued that a provision requiring an annual review of the regime was needed to address these issues. China expressed support for an annual review of the regime and called on the Council to consider the draft resolution it circulated in October 2021 on the humanitarian situation in the DPRK, which would provide sanctions relief to the DPRK if adopted.

Other Council members strongly criticised Russia’s veto, arguing that it undermines the global non-proliferation regime and emboldens the DPRK in its attempts to evade sanctions. Several members—including France, Japan, the ROK, the UK, and the US—linked the veto to Russia’s alleged purchase of arms from the DPRK. Some of these members emphasised that the 1718 regime remained in place and that they would continue efforts to monitor and enforce its provisions. These positions are likely to be reflected in Council members’ statements tomorrow.

Members that have expressed concern about the growing cooperation between Russia and the DPRK may also point to analysis suggesting that Russia may have assisted the DPRK with preparations for the 27 May satellite launch. On 26 May, Yonhap News Agency, a media outlet based in Seoul, reported that Russian experts had entered the DPRK to support its satellite programmes. This report followed DPRK leader Kim Jong-un’s September 2023 tour of a Russian space launch facility, during which Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly responded to a media question regarding possible Russian assistance to the DPRK’s satellite programmes by saying “that’s why we came here. The leader of the DPRK shows great interest in rocket engineering; they are also trying to develop space”.

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