Opinion | UN’s sanctions-fuelled approach to North Korea must end

Thirteen of the 15 current UN Security Council members voted in favour of extending the panel’s mandate, with China abstaining and Russia vetoing the resolution. The Russian side said the West was trying to “strangle” North Korea and that sanctions were losing their relevance and are “detached from reality”.

The panel’s mandate is set to officially expire on April 30. But even if the panel is saved before the deadline, it is high time the UN changes its strategy towards North Korea to one prioritising diplomacy over sanctions.

02:07

North Korea, China vow to deepen ties as Pyongyang conducts new missile tests

North Korea, China vow to deepen ties as Pyongyang conducts new missile tests

A wise first step would be to shift the focus away from the Security Council as the political and ideological divisions among the five permanent members are unlikely to lead to diplomatic progress with North Korea. The Security Council has been unable to pass any new sanction resolutions against North Korea for more than six years, with China and Russia vetoing a US proposal for additional sanctions against Pyongyang in 2022. As Esther Im of the National Committee on North Korea noted, sanctions without diplomacy are “a purely punitive measure that may push the denuclearisation horizon further away”.
As such, the UN should use its good offices to promote dialogue between North Korea and other member states. Although some might say the UN is a lost cause and nothing more than a glorified debate club, there is still much the UN can do beyond the Security Council to promote dialogue and peace on the Korean peninsula.
For example, the UN Charter emphasises the role of the secretary general as a peacemaker, which includes taking action towards the “peaceful settlement of disputes.” Instead of condemning North Korea’s nuclear activities and human rights record, the secretary general and other high-level UN officials should focus on setting a foundation for the resumption of diplomatic negotiations with North Korea.
In 2017, for example, Jeffrey Feltman, then UN undersecretary general for political affairs, travelled to Pyongyang to defuse tensions amid the rapidly worsening security situation on the peninsula. Ten days later, North Korea’s UN ambassador Ja Song-nam made a rare appearance at a UN Security Council meeting. In this way, the UN leadership played an important role in creating favourable conditions for dialogue.
Jeffrey Feltman, UN undersecretary general for political affairs, arrives at Pyongyang International Airport in North Korea on December 5, 2017. Photo: AP

As an agency created to protect and promote international peace and security, the UN should provide an impartial platform to facilitate diplomatic dialogue between North Korean representatives and officials from other UN member states. Through such forums, all member states can exchange views on ways to amend the UN’s overall strategy towards North Korea while taking into account Pyongyang’s opinions and concerns.

The secretary general could also appoint a special envoy or group specifically tasked with engaging North Korea diplomatically and promoting dialogue with the international community. Such discussions could cover the possibility of sanctions relief, confidence-building measures and the establishment of a regular regional security dialogue hosted by the UN.

Further isolation of North Korea is not conducive to international peace and security. On the contrary, it increases the risk of not only regional instability but also possible conflict that could have global repercussions. As the US Institute of Peace argued in a September 2020 special report, isolating North Korea from the international community is self-defeating.

Engaging North Korea through diplomatic dialogue serves as a crisis management tool, allowing the international community to pursue a negotiated agreement while simultaneously deterring Pyongyang from escalating tensions through additional military provocations.

02:43

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un says he has lawful right to annihilate South Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un says he has lawful right to annihilate South Korea

In addition, the UN should focus on supporting its resident agencies in North Korea to continue and possibly expand their work in the country once its borders reopen. This would allow the UN to once again play a leading role in supporting the North Korean population’s needs while rebuilding and strengthening relationships with North Korean government officials. A lack of consistent UN engagement in the fields of humanitarian assistance and development could result in instability in North Korea which could, in turn, worsen the security situation on the peninsula and the wider region.

Finally, a new UN strategic framework for North Korea should be created as the current one was formulated in 2016. With North Korea submitting its first Voluntary National Review regarding the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals to the UN in 2021, the framework should be revised to include the latest data and information while realigning its priorities to effectively address the most urgent challenges and needs. The UN should also encourage North Korea to continue submitting such reports as it provides a crucial source of information on the situation on the ground and serves as yet another communication link with Pyongyang.

While the US and like-minded member states might want to continue pushing for the expansion of the sanctions regime, they must remember that the reason the US was created in the first place was to safeguard international peace and security. The best way of doing this is through diplomacy, not sanctions.

Dr Gabriela Bernal is a North Korea analyst based in Seoul, South Korea

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