China Holds the Key to the North Korea Problem

As the international community struggles to respond effectively to the missile tests recently launched by the North Korean government, critics have blamed the Security Council of the United Nations for failing to deter aggression and preserve world peace.

That blame is misplaced. In this case, responsibility for controlling North Korea, and the ability to do so, falls squarely on China.
The way that the United Nations was originally designed explains why, today, China alone has the leverage needed to quell North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
In failing to confront North Korea’s decision to move the world closer to nuclear conflict, the Security Council is merely respecting the original intentions of its founder’s to allow each great power a comprehensive veto over any international action that might precipitate a world war.
When Great Britain and the United States developed the first plans for the UN in the early 1940s, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not agree on the composition or role of the future organizations executive committee.
Churchill envisaged a UN membership divided into three regions, with the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union each primarily responsible for peace and order within one of the areas.
Roosevelt called his arrangement the four policeman (Churchill’s three great powers plus China). The leaders of the four most powerful countries would work together to manage conflict across the international community as a whole. They would decide whether to respond, what type of action to take, and when to stop intervening.
Churchill and Roosevelt were able to compromise because their fundamental interest was the same. They, and Joseph Stalin, wanted an absolute veto over UN responses to security challenges. International activity that violated the sovereignty of an independent state could only be undertaken by the United Nations as a whole if each great power agreed to it.
Today’s Security Council resembles neither Churchill’s nor Roosevelt’s original vision, but the great power veto remains. As a result, so long as just one great power is uncomfortable with an international intervention, the Council is paralyzed.
Up to this point, when it comes to North Korea, China has been that one great power. Its interest in maintaining a mutually beneficial relationship with Pyongyang has prevented the Security Council from responding assertively to Kim Jong-il’s repeated provocations.
Unlike Beijing, Washington long ago accepted that as the world’s leading global actor its responsibilities were broader than those of its allies and that smaller states would depend upon it to act when no one else could. China’s response to North Korea will serve as a critical test of its readiness to assume that international obligations that come with its increasing global prominence.
China must be convinced that North Korea’s actions are sufficiently grave so as to merit a global response, even if it risks escalating the situation. A joint US-Chinese Security Council resolution could empower the UN to tighten and enforce economic sanctions that would eventually force Pyongyang to tone down its rhetoric and cease its nuclear tests.
It seems, however, that the Chinese continue to believe that their relationship with Kim Jong-il’s communist regime acts as a sufficient check on the ailing leaders military recklessness.
Until they feel differently, there is little that President Obama, the Security Council, or the rest of the international community can do to deter North Korean ambitions.
President Obama should continue to urge President Hu Jintao to accept that there must be limits to national sovereignty and that government-sanctioned nuclear proliferation breaches one of those limits. But just like Churchill and Roosevelt did in the 1940s, Beijing bases its foreign policy on its own interests. Unless Obama concedes, and China accepts, the power and responsibilities that come with its newfound place in the global hierarchy, the Security Council will remain impotent.
To the United States and its allies, being forced to depend on China must be disconcerting. But the ability of a single great power to block aggressive international action is exactly in-line with what the UN founders envisioned.
The problem, therefore, is not the Security Council’s. The Council will have its intended effect only when the great powers decide together that North Korea should be aggressively punished for its actions. Chinese leadership is critical.

Adam Chapnick is the deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College and author of The Middle Power Project: Canada and the Founding of the United Nations (2005).