By Carolyn Leddy
The recent seizure of 35 tons of North Korean-made weapons by the Thai government is being hailed as a victory for United Nations sanctions.
But the confiscation of this arms cache will be meaningless if the international community fails to impose consequences on North Korea and other parties involved for violating U.N. prohibitions. Moreover, the international community must maintain pressure on Pyongyang through continued sanctions enforcement.
Thai authorities searched and seized the contents of a cargo plane during a refueling stop in Bangkok under the auspices of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874.
UNSCR 1874, passed earlier this year in response to North Korea's second nuclear test, expands upon the prohibitions contained in UNSCR 1718, passed in 2006 after North Korea's first nuclear test. UNSCR 1874 obliges states to inspect transiting cargo suspected of violating its prohibitions.
The weapons seizure is a positive development in the international effort to combat North Korean proliferation activities. The Thai government has been appropriately lauded for undertaking this action, particularly when states, such as China and Russia, continue to pay lip service to sanctions enforcement.
North Korea generates nearly $1 billion a year in hard currency through illicit conventional arms sales. Any successful effort to disrupt this important regime revenue stream is significant.
The seizure of the arms cache came on the heels of a visit to Pyongyang by U.S. President Barack Obama's special representative for North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, to persuade the regime to return to the six-party talks.
Bosworth's visit did not yield an immediate commitment from North Korea to return to the six-party talks. Nevertheless, the Obama administration cast the visit in a positive light, noting that North Korea recognized the necessity of returning to the talks at an early date.
Bosworth reportedly delivered a letter from Obama to Kim Jong-il urging North Korea to return to the six-party talks. Ironically, North Korea reportedly requested relief from U.N. sanctions during the visit.
Pyongyang's request for sanctions relief is not surprising. The past relationship between sanctions and the six-party talks has been turbulent to say the least.
Under the administration of Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, counter-proliferation officials, including John Bolton and Robert Joseph, developed a sophisticated network of sanctions and interdiction activities to target North Korea's illicit weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and financial activities.
These measures were largely embraced by the international community and yielded significant results. The freezing of illicit funds in Banco Delta Asia (BDA) remains the most prominent public example of the success of these efforts.
Regrettably, these measures were abandoned by the Bush administration in favor of a misguided diplomatic strategy of engagement and incentives through the six-party talks.
The Obama administration is on record favoring a dual-track strategy with North Korea of sanctions enforcement and engagement through six-party talks aimed at denuclearization. Administration officials have pointedly stated that they do not intend to repeat the mistakes of predecessors in dealing with North Korea.
It is widely suspected that the United States provided the intelligence information leading to the successful interdiction effort.
But the Obama administration has remained eerily silent about the official U.S. role in the weapons seizure by Thai authorities. And there has been no comment on what incentives may have been offered by Obama in his personal letter to Kim Jong-il.
Here is where the rubber meets the road for the Obama administration's policy on North Korea. Predictably, supporters of the six-party talks are already expressing concern that the recent interdiction effort will complicate diplomatic efforts to secure an early resumption of the six-party talks.
But the Obama administration must stand by its vow not to repeat the mistakes of its predecessor in easing sanctions on North Korea. A statement from the White House expressing support for punitive measures under the U.N. Security Council for North Korea's latest transgression would be a welcome first step.
The timing of the seizure ― only days after Bosworth departed Pyongyang ― is also significant because it is yet another demonstration of North Korea's duplicity and ultimately the futility of six-party talks.
The most egregious example of North Korea's disregard for international commitments remains North Korea's proliferation of nuclear technology to Syria. Regrettably, the international community has yet to implement punitive measures against either North Korea or Syria for these illicit proliferation activities.
Given Obama's predilection for engagement, one should not expect to see a decision to abandon the six-party talks process any time soon. But Obama must not fall prey to the temptation to believe that things will be different with North Korea. The reality remains: The Kim regime has no intention of abandoning its nuclear weapons program.
Sanctions are not a silver bullet solution to the North Korean nuclear problem. For every successful interdiction effort, there are undoubtedly several transactions that go undetected.
But sanctions remain a critical piece of any successful counter-proliferation strategy. As long as regime change remains a taboo subject, the options are limited for dealing with North Korea.
The international community must remain proactive and continue to strengthen counter-proliferation efforts, including sanctions enforcement, to prevent North Korean proliferation activities. The alternative is simply unacceptable.
The author is a council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi Ltd. international affairs fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies in Japan. She served in the Bush administration from 2003 to 2007 at both the U.S. Department of State and as director for counterproliferation strategy at the National Security Council. While at the NSC, she was a member of an official U.S. delegation that visited the Yongbyon nuclear facility in September 2007. She can be reached at email@example.com.