Yesterday’s event really shouldn’t require an introduction. As most of you know, Pyeongyang (Pyongyang) detonated an underground nuclear device, the third such incident over the past few years. Global leaders were forced to dust off their scripted diatribes and once again berate North Korea over the irresponsibility of its actions.
By this time, the dance is so familiar, you can nearly anticipate what each head of state is going to say verbatim. Naturally everyone said swift and decisive action was needed to properly chastise North Korea. When isolation and sanctions fail, tough sounding words are the only recourse left.
While there’s a flurry of panic elsewhere, citizens in Korea really couldn’t care less. Everyone here knew the test was going to take place, so it didn’t come as much of a surprise. The news stations played it up, but not too many people are actually working it into their daily conversations. It’s a non-incident. Why? Because people here have long since given up hope of actual change, and have decided to ignore North Korea and starve it of the attention it so desperately wants.
For the rest of this post, let’s ignore Korean attitudes to the test, as outside of fire-spewing politicians and headline-seeking media types, people just don’t care. Instead, I want to focus on non-South Korean players.
Over the years in Korea, I’ve witnessed quite a few North Korean “events”. There were the failed rocket launches, and then the successful one. There were the nuclear tests. Then there were the outright violent incidents such as the sinking of the naval ship, and the bombardment of the islet. What were the responses to all these incidents? If you guessed economic sanctions and strong words, give yourself a pat on the back.
Do you know why North Korea ignores what the international community has to say? If you guessed they have little incentive to do so anyway, give yourself another pat on the back (but, change hands; you don’t want to play favourites).
Many of the comments from the West are of the hand-wringing type. Why, oh, why doesn’t the UN do something? The UN doesn’t operate the way Joe Public thinks it operates, for one simple reason: The Security Council.
The Security Council is not the General Assembly. Whereas the General Assembly is an all-inclusive club of nations, the Security Council is the club of elites and only inclusive to the special few. In other words, you have a great deal of power divided amongst a small group of players. This small group is further cut down to the number of three. There are only three major players on the Security Council: America, China, and Russia.
It’s somewhat amusing we demand North Korea to adhere to international law, and we plea for the Security Council to come together and do something in the interest of peace. When we look at the three major players on the Security Council, “adhering to international law” and “protecting the rights and freedoms of individuals” aren’t two phrases that immediately spring to mind.
North Korea no doubt notes this apparent hypocrisy, which helps explain its outright dismissal of UN resolutions. Earlier, there was much talk about the flight path of NK’s rocket. Japan and the Philippines both demanded Pyeongyang keep its rocket out of their airspace. Did NK listen? No, of course not. Why would they, when such things are regularly flouted by other members of the UN on a frequent basis? The North Korean government may be demanded to make democratic reforms, but again, where’s the incentive?
To be clear, I’m not saying two wrongs make a right, and that North Korea should be forgiven for its actions. I’m merely saying you cannot expect North Korea to abide by the moral authority of the Security Council, when the Council itself lacks an apparent code of ethics. The political elite in Pyeongyang know this, and they ultimately know they don’t have anything to fear as long as the Security Council’s only purpose is to serve the self-interests of its members.
So Obama will condemn North Korea in the short term, but it will have little bearing on the long term. America won’t condemn Israeli expansion (but Russia will). Russia won’t condemn the Assad government in Syria (but America will). China won’t condemn the Kim dynasty in North Korea (etc, etc). Bogging down the Security Council is a web of self-serving interests, and it’s this web that makes the UN, as a whole, an organization incapable of serving the needs of the many.
Everyone knows condemnation from the West rings with hollow words, perhaps none more than North Korea. They have little to fear of decisive action against themselves, because there are too many other bones of contention to pick (Syria, Israel, Iran, Pakistan, Tibet, Libya, Palestine, etc). The almighty veto is a manifestation of the web keeping the Security Council from doing anything for the greater good.
In the meantime, North Korea will continue to starve its people to fund military projects. It will continue to flout UN resolutions, and international law. It will carry on the childish war of words its “press” engages in. Why? Because it can, and it will do so until it can’t.
See, you again in a few months.