As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Thailand for talks with her Asian counterparts, a central topic of discussion will be security on the Korean Peninsula. Two weeks ago, North Korea celebrated America's independence with a fireworks show of its own: seven ballistic missiles launched into the Sea of Japan.
This latest launch and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meetings add urgency to the international debate about how to compel more-responsible behavior from the Hermit Kingdom. This discussion misses a critical point, however. One of the strongest multilateral sanctions architectures ever created already exists to pressure North Korea; it just needs to be enforced. The United States was complicit in emasculating this sanctions regime. So, before jumping into lengthy negotiations over yet more sanctions, why not enforce the coercive measures already on the books?
In response to North Korea's first nuclear test in October 2006, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1718, which authorized three types of sanctions: an embargo on arms and luxury goods, a travel ban, and an asset freeze against individuals or entities contributing to North Korea's weapons program. The resolution banned all transfers in or out of North Korea of heavy weaponry and ballistic-missile technologies and inputs. The resolution did not specify the luxury goods banned, nor did it name the individuals and entities to be designated for the travel ban and asset freeze. Instead, it established a sanctions committee to undertake these tasks.
Shortly afterward, however, North Korea announced it would return to denuclearization negotiations. Within weeks of their adoption, the sanctions were tacitly shelved in deference to the six-party talks (the negotiations between North Korea, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States that were initiated when North Korea pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003). Six-party negotiators felt the sanctions resolution had helped compel North Korea back to the negotiating table and worried that trying to enforce the sanctions might jeopardize the fragile talks.
The sanctions became a bargaining piece and were quietly traded away in futile hopes of six-party progress. The following 2½ years saw on-again, but mostly off-again, U.S. interest in enforcing the sanctions, based on the status of the fledgling six-party process.
As a result, the sanctions committee created to track and enforce Resolution 1718 became largely dormant. It took the committee nine months to adopt its working guidelines after passage of Resolution 1718. It failed to define a list of luxury goods and decided in February 2007 that luxury goods meant whatever member states defined them to be. This allowed countries like China to skirt the terms of the resolution. By 2008, only a third of U.N. member countries had reported as required on measures taken to implement the embargo, and the sanctions committee didn't even meet during 2008 due to a lack of business.