The trailing of the DPRK vessel Kang Nam by USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) over the last few days has highlighted the folly of relying on the United Nations Security Council as a means to craft and enforce any meaningful penalty against KJI’s military dictatorship. Recent comments from China’s Foreign Ministry also make clear the role China has had, and continues to have, as the regional power that enables North Korea to defy the international community, most specifically the United States, in its continued development of an arsenal of long-range nuclear-tipped ICBMs.
Reuters reports that China today:
“…warned against enforced boarding of North Korean vessels”.
“This is a complex and sensitive issue,” Qin told a news conference when asked about enforcing the resolution.
“China will strictly observe the relevant Security Council resolution. We believe ship inspections should be enforced according to relevant international and domestic law, and one should have ample evidence and proper cause.”
Reuters also observed; “These latest comments highlighted the divide between China and other powers that have sought a more assertive approach to North Korean ships they suspect may be carrying illicit trade.”
Somewhat coyly, China also disavows any direct knowledge of the DPRK vessel, its cargo, or destination. Seems a little unlikely, for a nation with such a sophisticated maritime intelligence gathering apparatus.
The UNSC Resolution, Number 1874 if you are keeping score, was unanimously approved, with significant fanfare. Citing four other resolutions regarding North Korea’s conduct since 1993, UNSCR 1874 has some impressive language at first blush. However, as usual, the “brass tacks” language that China will insist we so strictly adhere to is pathetically weak. This is particularly true regarding the subject of interdicting North Korean trade of arms and technology that are forbidden by 1874 and other similar UNSCRs. To wit, Paragraphs 11 and 12 of UNSCR 1874:
12. Calls upon all Member States to inspect vessels, with the consent of the
flag State, on the high seas, if they have information that provides reasonable
grounds to believe that the cargo of such vessels contains items the supply, sale,
transfer, or export of which is prohibited by paragraph 8 (a), 8 (b), or 8 (c) of
resolution 1718 (2006) or by paragraph 9 or 10 of this resolution, for the purpose of
ensuring strict implementation of those provisions;
13. Calls upon all States to cooperate with inspections pursuant to
paragraphs 11 and 12, and, if the flag State does not consent to inspection on the
high seas, decides that the flag State shall direct the vessel to proceed to an
appropriate and convenient port for the required inspection by the local authorities
pursuant to paragraph 11;
The loophole is large enough to sail several cargo vessels full of missile parts through. The permission of the flag state? Not bloody likely. The term “reasonable grounds” will be forever a matter of dispute. Which leaves the North Koreans with the ability to have their cargo vessels make port in a nation that will agree not to search them, carrying whatever they please, with the tacit wink of China as a hedge against US influence and actions.
Unlike 1962, when the US had no intention of asking permission of the Soviets to board a vessel during the naval “quarantine” of Cuba, the US Navy does not currently have the means to enforce such a measure against DPRK, particularly against the wishes of China. And with the PRC/PLAN aiming to gain regional hegemony on the seas in the Western Pacific coupled with a shrinking US Navy, such means are likely not going to be available for the foreseeable future.
One point is very clear from this situation. The concept of the Thousand Ship Navy, particularly when that “Navy” includes our Chinese “partners”, should once and for all be recognized as foolishly naive. It is the United States Navy that MUST have the capability of protecting US interests and projecting power, reliant upon no other nation or maritime force to accomplish those missions.