Just as many Tufts students were preparing to leave campus and celebrate Thanksgiving with friends and family, North Korea shelled the South Korean island Yeonpyeong, killing two marines and two civilians. While the attack was not unprecedented, as tensions have been steadily increasing since the March attack on a South Korean warship, the incident last Tuesday was certainly one of the worst clashes between the nations since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Many nations and leaders, including the Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, were quick to condemn North Korea’s actions. However, there appears to be no resolve for developing any further, or even firmer, response to the situation.
Since 2006, the UN has imposed stiff financial and trade sanctions on North Korea following the country’s nuclear testing. Almost five years later, not only has North Korea not halted its weapons program but the sanctions regime still contains several large holes. Trade in luxury items, food, and arms have continued between North Korea and several countries, including China. As a member of the Security Council, however, China has not suffered any consequences for its infringements of the sanctions regime. In fact, the last UN sanctions committee report on North Korea was blocked from reaching the Security Council for several months by China.
The current escalating tensions between North and South Korea pose a serious challenge for the United Nations. Both countries are holding live-fire military drills, and, if the statements of South Korean President Lee are anything to go by, are preparing for the worst. Large powers are getting drawn in in a variety of ways, from the US participating in military drills with South Korea to China calling for negotiations. With Security Council members involved on separate sides of the conflict, firm direction from the UNSC seems unlikely. When last faced with a serious situation in this region, the March warship incident, the Security Council was unable to agree on a meeting or statement until July, and at that point only condemned the attack which killed 46 South Korean navy members.
The future of the United Nations, its relevance and reputation rests on many issues and the Korean dispute is certainly among them. The fact that North Korea continues its nuclear weapons program, as well as trade, endangers the UN’s relevance as an international legal institution. The lack of response to the rising tensions, military displays and attacks between North and South Korea threatens the UN’s role as an international peacekeeping body. The conflict of interests on the Security Council, albeit not unique to this issue, undermines the body’s ability to function swiftly and purposefully. In defense of the United Nations I have always said that it can only be as strong as its members. So what should the position of the United Nations be for an issue over which even the Security Council members cannot come to a consensus?
This post was written by Quinn Connors, a senior at Tufts University majoring in International Relations