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North Korean Nuclear Threat

North Korea has reportedly acquired the technological capability to hit the west coast of North America with a nuclear weapon.


Following a North Korean satellite launch and other developments, the director of national intelligence has informed the president that North Korea is now capable of firing a nuclear-armed missile against the United States. The president has called an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss an international response to North Korea’s enhanced capabilities.

Lead Image
North Korean parade.

The Situation

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) has for decades pursued its nuclear ambitions to the dismay of both Western countries and its neighbors in East Asia. It recently announced the successful launch of a satellite from a three-stage rocket, and U.S. and allied intelligence services conclude that North Korea now possesses the reentry technology for an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the North American west coast. The director of national intelligence has concluded that the missile launch, combined with North Korea’s ongoing nuclear tests and its mastery of warhead miniaturization technology, means the country is capable of following through on past threats to fire a nuclear-armed missile against the United States. The president has called an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council to present this new intelligence and discuss an international response to North Korea’s enhanced capabilities.





  • Security and diplomacy in Northeast Asia
  • Legacy of the Cold War and the Korean War  
  • Chinese support of North Korea
  • Nuclear-related agreements and institutions
Guide Sections
UN logo
The UN Security Council

“I believe the people of the world rely on the United Nations to help them achieve two great purposes. They look to it to help them improve the conditions under which they live. And they rely on it to fulfill their profound longing for peace.”

— Harry S. Truman, President of the United States, October 24, 1946

1.1 Overview

The United Nations is the largest and most prominent international organization, its membership including nearly all the world’s countries. It was established in 1945, after the end of World War II, by the United States and some four dozen other countries in an effort to build a more peaceful and cooperative postwar world. The United Nations has four main priorities: to keep peace throughout the world, promote fundamental human rights, strengthen international law, and pursue “social progress” and higher standards of living.

One of the most important functions of the United Nations is the maintenance of international peace and security. This is primarily the task of the UN Security Council, a decision-making body that comprises fifteen countries—five hold permanent seats and ten are elected on a rotating basis. The five permanent members (known as the P5) are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The council’s main responsibilities are to evaluate threats to international peace and security and to promote the peaceful resolution of disputes. When a peaceful settlement cannot be reached, the Security Council can impose diplomatic or economic sanctions and even authorize the use of force to resolve conflicts and prevent new ones. Since its founding, the Security Council has addressed a variety of issues, such as civil wars, terrorism, arms control, and natural disasters.

Despite its prominent position, however, the Security Council’s influence is limited. Any action requires the unanimous agreement of the P5, meaning that no resolution can be adapted if even one permanent member votes no—or vetoes—the measure. This kind of agreement is often difficult to reach, especially when a permanent member thinks its interests will be jeopardized if the measure passes. Moreover, the United Nations lacks its own military forces and thus cannot compel countries to follow its directives. In other words, it has no enforcement power. In short, the Security Council can do only what its member states agree that it should do and are prepared to implement. These factors mean that countries, especially major powers, can bypass the Security Council or ignore its decisions. Nonetheless, the United Nations is the only organization with essentially universal membership, making it—despite its weaknesses—an important feature of international affairs.

The UN Security Council
UN headquarters in New York.

“We have never had a true system of global governance, much less a fully democratic one. Still, across many decades, we established solid foundations for international cooperation. We came together as united nations to build institutions, norms and rules to advance our shared interests.”

— António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, September 25, 2018

1.2 The UN System

Since its founding in 1945, the United Nations has grown to include 193 member states, several subsidiary bodies, and a network of offices and programs around the world. The nature of the issues on the UN agenda has evolved over time. The Cold War and its associated conflicts dominated for much of the twentieth century. Hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union held up much UN activity, and the Security Council was often deadlocked, given the veto each country held as a permanent member. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, this dynamic began to change. In the past twenty years, issues including climate change, terrorism, and international migration have shifted the UN focus away from interstate conflict to problems that transcend national borders.


The United Nations is divided into six principal organs or parts: the General Assembly, the Secretariat, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and the Security Council.

The General Assembly deliberates on the widest range of issues, spanning all areas of the United Nations’ work, and is the only body in which all 193 UN member states are represented, each having one vote. General Assembly resolutions are nonbinding—in other words, they are recommendations.

The Secretariat carries out the institution’s day-to-day work. Led by the secretary-general and comprising tens of thousands of staff members from various countries, the Secretariat administers peacekeeping missions; staffs UN offices around the world; and operates communications, financial, and many other functions. As the organization’s chief administrative officer, the secretary-general attends sessions of UN bodies, consults with world leaders and other interested parties, issues reports on the work of the United Nations, and acts as a spokesperson for the organization.

The United Nations also includes the Economic and Social Council, tasked with coordinating and discussing economic, social, and environmental issues; the Trusteeship Council, created to provide international supervision for decolonization and now largely inactive; and the International Court of Justice (ICJ), responsible for settling legal disputes between states.

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The UN Security Council
Un peackeepers.

“UN Security Council Resolutions are only as effective as their enforcement.”

— Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, December 17, 2015

1.3 The UN Security Council

The Security Council is tasked with identifying and addressing threats to international security. In addition, it makes recommendations to the General Assembly for the appointment of the secretary-general and the admission of new members to the United Nations. Security Council decisions are communicated through resolutions, which are formal texts that outline steps to be taken and the reasoning behind those steps. In the absence of agreement, the body may also issue presidential statements, which are similar in content and form to a formal resolution but do not legally bind member states.



Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States make up the permanent members of the council. The remaining ten members are elected by the General Assembly to serve two-year terms. In electing nonpermanent council members, the General Assembly considers two factors. It must consider the “contribution of Members of the United Nations to the maintenance of international peace and security and to the other purposes of the Organization.” In practice, this stipulation means that aggressive, norm-defying countries tend not to be elected to the council and that countries that contribute significantly to the United Nations (financially or in the form of personnel and equipment) appear more frequently. Second, nonpermanent members must reflect an equitable geographic distribution, meaning members must be elected from each of the major regions of the world.


The Security Council presidency is held on a rotating basis by both permanent and nonpermanent member states. The position rotates in English alphabetical order by country name, each country holding office for one month. The president presides over meetings and serves as the Security Council’s representative before all other UN organizations. However, it is the UN secretary-general, and not the Security Council president, who sets the agenda for council meetings. The president simply approves this agenda.

Subsidiary Organs

Various subsidiary organs exist to support the Security Council’s mission and implement its resolutions. These range from committees on sanctions, counterterrorism, and nonproliferation to international criminal tribunals that prosecute those responsible for genocide and war crimes. The council also maintains partnerships or close relationships with a variety of other elements in the UN system, such as the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, which manages peacekeeping field operations, and the International Court of Justice, to which it often refers cases.


Meetings of the Security Council are typically called when a state—even a nonmember (one of the two observer states at the United Nations or other states whose sovereignty is disputed)—brings a dispute to the Security Council’s attention, when the General Assembly refers a question to the council, or when the secretary-general raises a concern about international peace and security. Once the president decides that a meeting is necessary, he or she calls for a session to address the issue.

Both UN members and nonmembers, the latter if they are parties to a dispute being considered by the Security Council, are invited to participate, though nonmembers do not have a vote in the council’s discussions. If a Security Council member is party to the dispute being discussed, it must abstain (in other words, formally decline) from voting.

Both Security Council members and invited participants may introduce a draft of a resolution—a ruling or recommendation made by a UN body—expressing a Security Council decision. After debating proposals, any member may call for a vote. A resolution needs nine votes to pass. However, a dissenting vote from any of the five permanent Security Council members can defeat a resolution, no matter how many affirmative votes it receives. This powerful dissenting vote is known as the veto. Permanent members may use their veto for any reason; typically, they do so to stop resolutions that threaten their national interests. Security Council members may also abstain from voting; in such a case, a resolution passes as long as no other member exercises a veto. Permanent members sometimes abstain from a vote if they disagree with a resolution but are not sufficiently opposed to veto it.

Powers, Functions, and Tools

If a resolution passes, the Security Council has several powers that it can use to ensure that resolution’s implementation. Certain Security Council resolutions are considered legally binding on all UN member states, meaning that the countries are obligated to comply with the terms of the resolution. This sets the Security Council apart from other UN organs, which are empowered only to issue recommendations.

The United Nations’ founding document, the UN Charter, lays out the tools the Security Council can use to execute its work. These are established in Chapter VI and Chapter VII of the charter. Under Chapter VI, the council can only make recommendations of how parties should resolve a dispute. Under Chapter VII, however, the council may use more forceful methods. Generally, resolutions under Chapter VII are considered binding.

Chapter VI: Peaceful Settlement of Disputes

Chapter VI allows the Security Council to seek solutions to disputes by “negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means.”

Actions taken under Chapter VI include

  • referring legal disputes to the International Court of Justice,
  • recommending terms for the settlement of conflicts,
  • facilitating dispute resolution through a formal arbitration, and
  • launching peacekeeping missions.

The recommendations made under Chapter VI are just that—recommendations. They cannot be imposed on the parties concerned without their consent.

Peacekeeping missions may fall under Chapter VI or Chapter VII. In the case of Chapter VI missions, forces are deployed to help maintain a peace agreement, cease-fire, or other such arrangement that has already taken hold between warring parties. Peacekeeping missions under Chapter VI may include unarmed observers, lightly armed troops, or both. Their goal is to prevent new outbreaks of conflict and peacefully resolve disputes that arise. UN personnel tend to be stationed along a boundary line, such as a national border, and their role is usually to report infractions of peace agreements rather than to intervene. Critically, Chapter VI peacekeeping missions require the consent (or agreement) of the parties involved in the conflict, are considered impartial, and do not use force except in self-defense.

Chapter VII: Maintaining or Enforcing Peace

Chapter VII addresses “action with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression.”

Actions taken under Chapter VII include

  • severing diplomatic relations;
  • imposing economic sanctions, ranging from comprehensive economic and trade sanctions to more targeted measures such as arms embargoes, travel bans, and financial or diplomatic restrictions;
  • creating international tribunals, such as those for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia;
  • establishing or modifying peace enforcement or peace-building missions; and
  • calling for military intervention, either by multinational forces (organized, e.g., by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO]) or by regional organizations (such as the African Union).

Unlike Security Council resolutions issued under Chapter VI, those adopted under Chapter VII are binding. Two examples of Chapter VII resolutions are Resolution 1695, which in 2006 imposed sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear program, and Resolution 1973, which in 2011 established the legal basis for military intervention in the Libyan civil war.

One of the most frequently used tools under Chapter VII is the imposition of sanctions. Sanctions are restrictions on a country, organization, or individual, typically limiting the target’s ability to travel, trade, or access financial resources. They can be used to discourage certain future actions, such as building nuclear weapons, to pressure a party to act, or to punish it for violating international rules. Sanctions can target entire sectors of a country’s economy, but more commonly the Security Council pursues targeted—or smart—sanctions against certain industries, businesses, or individuals. These can include arms embargoes, travel restrictions, or financial asset freezes.

Sanctions have become a popular tool because they offer a way to intervene in an issue without the risks and costs associated with the use of military force. However, sanctions have raised some concerns as well. Critics have argued that even highly targeted sanctions can have unintended consequences, especially on already vulnerable populations. Furthermore, the Security Council lacks a concrete method of enforcing its sanctions, instead relying on individual countries to enforce them; if sanctions are weakly enforced, the target may be able to work around them, avoiding their effects and potentially discrediting the value of sanctions in the future.

If nonmilitary options, such as sanctions, fail to resolve a dispute, the Security Council may authorize a peace enforcement mission. Unlike Chapter VI peacekeeping missions, Chapter VII enforcement missions do not require the consent of the parties involved and are authorized to “take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security.” The personnel involved may include heavily armed troops and may use force in situations other than self-defense. Chapter VII peace enforcement missions can take different forms. Sometimes they are undertaken by UN peacekeeping forces and operate under UN command, but in other instances they can be led by a coalition of member states authorized to do so by a Security Council resolution.

In practice, the line between Chapter VI and Chapter VII missions is not always clear. A Security Council resolution does not need to explicitly refer to the chapter it is invoking. Moreover, a mission’s mandate—or description of its mission—may change over time to adjust to changing circumstances; a mission established under Chapter VI may be expanded to also fall under Chapter VII if the situation evolves and requires a more robust intervention.

The UN Security Council
Migrants and UNHCR soldiers.

The world has changed and the UN should change and adapt. If we don’t change the council, we risk a situation where the primacy of the council may be challenged by some of the new emerging countries”

— Kofi Anan, Former Secretary General of the United Nations, September 23, 2015

1.4 Current Issues

The Security Council was able to expand its activities considerably at the end of the Cold War. Because the United States and the Soviet Union were no longer in direct opposition, the number of vetoes declined significantly and the council was able to take action on a greater range of issues, including civil conflicts, climate change, and humanitarian crises. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, international terrorism came to the forefront of the council’s agenda.

Despite this increased activity, the Security Council continues to face significant challenges. The United Nations greatly expanded its peacekeeping efforts after the Cold War. But peacekeeping missions have faced criticism for being underfunded, for being limited in scope, and for abuses committed by peacekeepers themselves. In some cases, such as in Rwanda in 1994, peacekeepers have been accused of failing to prevent genocide.

In recent years, renewed tension between Russia and the United States has emerged as an obstacle to Security Council action. Most notably, observers and Security Council members themselves have sharply criticized the council’s inability to take action on the Syrian civil war, despite multiple reports of war crimes and an estimated death toll of at least five hundred thousand people. Russia, an ally of Syria’s government, has vetoed several resolutions aimed at stabilizing the conflict and alleviating the growing humanitarian crisis, arguing that any such resolution would be a violation of Syria’s sovereignty (in other words, the Syrian government’s authority over its territory). Use of vetoes has increased in the last decade, Russia and the United States casting the majority of them.

These challenges have led many UN members, including the United States, to call for changes to the Security Council. Many observers argue that the council’s composition, which allots the five permanent seats to the winners of World War II (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), does not reflect the power structure of today’s world. They argue instead for extending permanent membership to more members. Another source of criticism has been the P5’s veto, which, critics assert, undermines the council’s ability to take action.

Reform, however, is controversial and complicated. Any reform of the Security Council would require an amendment to the UN Charter that is approved and ratified by a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly and then a vote in the Security Council, where the permanent members would enjoy their usual right to veto. Given this, any reform of the UN Security Council that is not supported, or at least tolerated, by the P5 is unachievable, and garnering such support or tolerance will almost certainly prove impossible.

Guide Glossary


arbitration:a method of dispute resolution in which the parties submit their claims to an agreed-upon and impartial third party, who renders a decision that the parties agree to obey.


cease-fire:an agreement by one or more parties to a conflict to end military activities at a specified time, often for the purpose of allowing the pursuit of peace negotiations or the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Cold War:the contest between the United States and the Soviet Union—and, by extension, capitalist democracy and communist dictatorship—that characterized international politics between the post–World War II years and the early 1990s. Deemed a “cold” war because the rivalry never resulted in direct warfare between the two, the contest nevertheless sparked proxy wars in other countries and many close calls, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.


embargo:a ban on trade with a certain country or entity. Embargoes can restrict the trade of all goods, or target certain commodities, such as weapons.


genocide:the intentional mass destruction of a group of people based on religion, ethnicity, or another identity or characteristic. The United Nations (UN) recognized the act of genocide as a crime under international law in 1948.


international law:a body of formal rules and norms considered binding among states. It is one of the organized bases upon which states interact with each other in the international system. Sources of international law include treaties, such as formal bilateral defense pacts or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and international customs, such as general prohibitions against slavery and genocide, many of which are also formally codified.


norm:a broadly accepted principle of behavior that may not be formally written but is generally agreed on and followed by members of a group, such as countries in the international system.


Resolution:a formal document articulating an opinion or decision by a UN body.


sanction:a tool of statecraft, frequently involving economic measures such as asset freezes and trade restrictions, used to exact a certain behavior or outcome from another party. The U.S. and EU sanctions against Russian companies and individuals that aim to encourage Russia to end its interference in Ukraine are an example.
sovereignty:supreme or absolute authority over a territory.
Soviet Union:officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the political entity in existence from the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution to the early 1990s that encompassed modern-day Russia and fifteen neighboring countries. With a communist economy and totalitarian system of government, the Soviet Union grew to be the other major superpower in the post–World War II era. As such, it was the principal antagonist of the United States during the Cold War.


terrorism:the use of violence to incite fear and achieve an objective, usually a political one.
trusteeship:the supervisory administration of a territory by another country. The intention is generally to help the territory prepare for independence. One of the core functions of the United Nations, upon its founding in 1945, was to supervise various territories governed under trusteeship. Over time, all became autonomous or independent.


United Nations:an international organization composed of 193 independent member states that aims to promote international peace and stability, human rights, and economic development. The United Nations was established in 1945 and remains the only organization with practically universal membership among the world’s countries. It includes the Security Council, General Assembly, and a range of other bodies; a secretary-general, currently Ban Ki-moon, serves as its leader. The United Nations also has an array of affiliated programs and agencies, such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
United Nations Security Council:the principal UN body charged with maintaining international peace and security. The UN Security Council is the only UN body with the authority to pass resolutions that are binding on the 193 UN member states. It includes five permanent member states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and ten rotating members elected to two-year terms. The five permanent members have veto power over resolutions, making their agreement necessary for a resolution’s approval. This structure provides strong international legitimacy to Security Council resolutions but also stymies action when the major powers disagree.


Veto:the right to reject a decision and block it from taking effect. The UN Security Council’s five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) each have the ability to veto Security Council resolutions.


Yugoslavia:a former country in Southeastern Europe. Between 1992 and 2008, Yugoslavia broke into seven independent countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia.
Case Notes Sections
Kim Jong Un
North Korean parade.

The use of nuclear weapons should be unthinkable.  Even the threat of their use can never be condoned.  But, today, global anxieties about nuclear weapons are at the highest level since the end of the cold war.”

— Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, September 19, 2017

2.1 The Issue

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, commonly known as North Korea, has been pursuing nuclear weapons for decades, to the dismay of Western countries and of its neighbors in East Asia. Some U.S. military officials now believe that North Korea has the capability to strike distant targets, including the continental United States, with a nuclear weapon, although tests have not yet proved such capability. In September 2017, Pyongyang conducted its sixth nuclear test and declared that the country had perfected its nuclear warhead design, hinting at the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon on a missile. Whether it has that ability is unconfirmed, but most analysts agree that North Korea has a reliable nuclear weapons capability to strike Japan and South Korea.

The UN Security Council, alongside many individual countries, has condemned the nuclear testing and implemented a program of stringent sanctions to convince North Korea’s leadership to change direction and denuclearize. Despite these efforts, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un believes that his country should be a nuclear weapons state and continues to pursue the ability to strike its adversaries, chiefly the United States, with a nuclear weapon. He is also determined to deter any initial conventional or nuclear attack by building a nuclear arsenal that could survive the first strike. Analysts believe that if Kim gains these capabilities, dealing with the North Korean threat will become much more difficult for other nations.

North Korean parade.
38th Parallel

“It pains all of us to think about how the regime has been developing weapons while people were starving, how the human potential has been wasted away in North Korea.”

— Oh Joon, South Korean Ambassador to the United Nations, March 2, 2016

2.2 Background

After Korea’s liberation from Japanese occupation in 1945 at the end of World War II, the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to divide the Korean Peninsula at the thirty-eighth parallel into two zones of occupation that would later become North Korea (backed by the Soviet Union and China) and South Korea (backed by the United States). North and South Korean leaders each wanted to reunify the peninsula under their own leadership and thought that they could do so with the support of their backers. This ambition led to the Korean War, a three-year conflict that started when North Korea invaded the South in such an attempt. The military conflict ended with an armistice in July 1953. To date, no peace treaty has been signed to end the war and the division of the Korean Peninsula has endured. Throughout much of the Cold War, the two Koreas, each backed by a superpower, competed politically, economically, and militarily for legitimate ownership of the entire peninsula. This struggle has continued to the present day.

North Korea has tried to develop nuclear weapons since at least the mid-1950s. North Korean leaders were impressed by the power of the atomic bomb that the United States used on Japan; moreover, Kim Il-sung, the North’s first leader, had been on the receiving end of nuclear threats during the Korean War. He came to see nuclear weapons as a way to ensure survival and enhance his country’s status. This desire became even more pressing with the end of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Without the support of its former ally, North Korea found itself in a more vulnerable position. By the early 1990s, South Korea had a much larger economy, a better international reputation, and an increasingly powerful military. It was also a young democracy that remained allied with the United States. North Korea, by contrast, was in economic ruins, militarily weak—at least in terms of conventional, nonnuclear, military power—and largely isolated from the rest of the world (other than from China).

North Korea’s continuing nuclear development became a growing concern for many countries in the 1990s when North Korea threatened to pull out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons technology. Initially, efforts to negotiate with North Korea over nuclear weapons produced some success, the country promising in 1994 to dismantle its nuclear program. By 2003, however, these efforts had collapsed. That year, North Korea, then led by Kim Jong-il (Kim Il-sung’s son), withdrew from the NPT, kicked out international inspectors from a nuclear facility, and prepared to conduct nuclear tests and declare itself a nuclear weapons state. Attempts to bring it back to the negotiating table through an initiative known as the Six Party Talks failed over the following years. On October 9, 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test. The UN Security Council condemned the test and imposed sanctions in response.

Following the 2011 death of Kim Jong-il and the assumption of leadership by his son Kim Jong-un, some analysts and politicians hoped that North Korea would return to the negotiating table. But despite policymakers’ on both sides calling for cooperation and diplomacy, North Korea has continued with its nuclear program, conducting nuclear tests in February 2013, January 2016, September 2016, and September 2017.

So far, economic sanctions imposed by the Security Council and by individual countries, including the United States, have not deterred North Korea’s commitment to developing nuclear weapons, and tensions on the Korean Peninsula have escalated. Although Kim held summits with the leaders of both the United States and South Korea in 2018, North Korea has not demonstrably pursued denuclearization. The North Koreans have been calling for a peace agreement with the United States but have refused U.S., South Korean, and Chinese appeals to return to nuclear talks. In June 2019, Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to travel to North Korea, where he met Kim Jong-un in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. The leaders agreed to restart denuclearization talks but thus far no progress has been made in organizing these negotiations. North Korea test-fired multiple short-range missiles less than one month later. The result has been a tense standoff as North Korea’s nuclear capabilities grow.

North Korean parade.
Korean Summit

“In the face of this threat, weakness and lack of action are not options. We have been brought together by a shared sense of urgency and a common determination to ensure that the authority of the Security Council is upheld. We must therefore shoulder our responsibilities together…Our goal must be complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Time is of the essence.”

— Francois Delattre, French Ambassador to the United Nations, July 5, 2017

2.3 Role of the UN Security Council

North Korea’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons program is motivated principally by the desire to develop a deterrent against an attack by external forces, particularly the United States or South Korea (in other words, a tool that discourages rivals from attacking or acting aggressively toward North Korea). North Korea’s threats have been directed primarily toward the United States and its allies. The Kim regime regards the U.S. military presence in South Korea (which currently hosts 28,500 U.S. troops) as an obstacle to a North Korea–led unification of the peninsula. It also sees the United States as posing the greatest dangerous military threat to it.

The most important priority for the UN Security Council on this matter is the denuclearization of North Korea. The Security Council is a core component of nuclear nonproliferation efforts; among other things, it is charged with responding to violations of the NPT. Most frequently, the Security Council acts by imposing sanctions on the noncompliant party. Since North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT in 2003, the Security Council has been at the center of international efforts to curtail the country’s nuclear program. Pyongyang’s first nuclear test in 2006 prompted the Security Council to unanimously approve a series of sanctions that have grown increasingly severe in response to subsequent tests.

North Korea already has the capability to hit South Korea and Japan with nuclear missiles and nonnuclear—that is, conventional—munitions. Advancements in its nuclear technology and weapons delivery capabilities could pose a serious security threat not just to the United States but also to its allies and the Asia-Pacific region more broadly. A nuclear attack by North Korea on one of its rivals could destroy cities and kill millions of people, potentially triggering a devastating conflict in the region.

Moreover, North Korea’s nuclear progress and the failure of international responses could encourage other countries to acquire nuclear weapons. Countries such as Japan and South Korea, for example, could face domestic political pressure to respond to the increased threat by developing their own nuclear arsenals as a deterrent. Such pressure would be detrimental to the global nonproliferation regime and would make any conflict in Northeast Asia far more destructive.

Any response to North Korea’s nuclear development will require the unanimous approval of the Security Council’s veto-wielding five permanent members (P5). Although the Security Council has been unanimous in its past condemnations of North Korea’s nuclear endeavors, Security Council members will need to account for the diverging interests of the P5, particularly those of China and the United States. China has a security treaty and long-standing political and ideological ties with North Korea, which relies on China for aid and political support. Although the Chinese have become increasingly critical of North Korea under Kim Jong-un, China still sees North Korea as a strategic buffer against a South Korea allied with the United States. China also seeks to prevent North Korea’s collapse, fearful that such an event could destabilize the region. The United States, on the other hand, views North Korea as a source of tension and instability and as a threat to neighboring South Korea and another ally Japan.

With those concerns in mind, the Security Council has a few options it could pursue in response to the North Korean nuclear threat.


Condemn testing and call for negotiations to resume.

The UN Security Council could adopt a resolution condemning North Korea’s latest missile test and calling on it to refrain from further testing and use of missiles or nuclear weapons, outlining consequences, including increased sanctions, should it fail to comply. The Security Council could further call for Pyongyang to return to negotiations in exchange for sanctions relief, economic aid, or diplomatic steps such as a formal peace treaty ending the Korean War. Such negotiations could take place bilaterally between the United States and North Korea, under the framework of the Six Party Talks, under the auspices of the secretary-general, through an arbitration mechanism such as the Permanent Court of Arbitration, or in another format. If an agreement is achieved, the Security Council could also call on North Korea to admit inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to confirm North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and monitor its compliance.

This is the least ambitious option and also the one least likely to face a veto. If successful, this option could reduce the threat of North Korean nuclear missiles and avoid escalation in tensions or an outbreak of conflict. Pyongyang, however, has ignored past condemnations of its activities. Simply calling on North Korea to alter course is unlikely to succeed; past negotiations, even when moderately successful, have proved difficult to enforce and have not led to lasting change. The Security Council risks having given North Korea aid or sanctions relief and received nothing in return. At best, failed negotiations would result in a return to the status quo. At worst, they could prolong the Kim regime and its nuclear program, damage the United Nations’ reputation, and bring the world closer to nuclear conflict.

The Security Council could choose to pursue negotiations first; should they prove unsuccessful, it could then resort to one of two other options.


Adopt new sanctions.

The UN Security Council could adopt a new round of sanctions against North Korea, further limiting Pyongyang’s access to fuel, manufacturing materials, and luxury goods. It could also call for states to crack down on North Korea’s illegal activities abroad to restrict its access to funds and nuclear materials.

Expanding sanctions would be driven by the assumption that the best path forward is to isolate North Korea and restrict its access to vital resources until its government collapses or changes. The Security Council has unanimously approved sanctions in response to past nuclear tests, but so far success has been scant in slowing North Korea’s nuclear development. Stronger sanctions could finally produce change, but there is no guarantee that they will have the desired effect. Moreover, Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs would likely remain in place—at least in the short term—posing a continued threat.


Authorize preventive military strikes.

The UN Security Council could adopt a resolution calling on North Korea to denuclearize and authorize member states to enforce that resolution using force if necessary. Such a resolution would lead the United States or a coalition of its allies to launch a preventive military strike aimed at destroying as many missile and nuclear weapons–related sites and as much equipment as possible with the goal of setting North Korea’s nuclear weapons program back by several years if not indefinitely. Given the current phase of the program, military strikes of a significant scale would be required to prevent North Korea from using its nuclear capabilities in retaliation.

This option offers a crucial benefit: the long-term reduction in the threat posed by the missiles and nuclear weapons. Successful preventive strikes could eliminate the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program and demonstrate a strong international commitment to nonproliferation. They could also send an effective warning to North Korea and others against developing nuclear weapons.

However, China, which has signed a security treaty with North Korea, is unlikely to consent to any military action by the United States or its allies, especially one that could lead to a conflict near its borders. Moreover, a military intervention comes with significant risks. A preventive strike cannot guarantee the successful destruction of all North Korean nuclear capabilities. A military strike also risks a North Korean retaliation that could escalate and have devastating results. Seoul, South Korea’s densely populated capital, is particularly vulnerable to North Korea’s military and special forces because of how close it is to the border with the North. Even limited retaliation by the North Koreans could cause a large number of deaths and a high level of destruction in Seoul. If North Korea fears losing its nuclear weapons, it could also decide to use them first.

Case Notes Glossary


38th parallel:a line of latitude established as the boundary between the northern and southern parts of Korea after World War II. Following the defeat of Japan, which had occupied Korea, territories north of the line were to be administered temporarily by the Soviet Union while southern territories were to be administered temporarily by the United States.


armistice:a formal agreement by warring parties to stop fighting for an agreed upon period, or sometimes indefinitely. An armistice is not a peace-treaty, but it can stop hostilities while warring parties attempt to negotiate a full peace agreement. In some instances, such as at the end of the Korean War in 1953, an armistice can be signed without leading to a formal peace treaty, leaving those who signed it technically still at war.


bilateral:undertaken between two entities, generally countries.


Cold War:the contest between the United States and the Soviet Union—and, by extension, capitalist democracy and communist dictatorship—that characterized international politics between the post–World War II years and the early 1990s. Deemed a “cold” war because the rivalry never resulted in direct warfare between the two, the contest nevertheless sparked proxy wars in other countries and many close calls, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
conventional:any form of military power that does not involve the use of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, which are referred to as weapons of mass destruction. Conventional weapons include small arms, armored vehicles, combat aircraft, artillery, and missiles.


deterrence:a strategy used to discourage an enemy from attacking by instilling a fear of retaliation. Scholars generally consider an effective deterrent to rely on capability and will, that is the means to retaliate and the intention to do so. Deterrence was the foundation of U.S. and NATO strategy toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. One variant is extended deterrence, in which a state threatens retaliation to prevent attacks not on itself but on its allies. The United States has long used extended deterrence to protect NATO members and other allies. In this way, the United States is also offering to these allies what is called a security guarantee.


International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA):an international organization seeking to promote peaceful use of nuclear technology. Created in 1957, the IAEA assists its 168 member states in developing such technology, delineates nuclear safety standards, and monitors and inspects countries’ nuclear facilities. IAEA inspections of North Korean facilities in the summer of 1992 revealed discrepancies between the country’s declaration of its nuclear activities and the evidence collected by inspectors. The discrepancies resulted in a standoff between the IAEA, the United States, and other powers on one hand, and North Korea on the other.


Korean Armistice Agreement:the armistice signed in 1953 that ended the Korean War. Signed by China and North Korea on one side, and the United States and South Korea on the other, the agreement formally ended the fighting while establishing no official claim to victory. Although the armistice was meant to be a temporary agreement until a permanent peace treaty was reached, no such document was ever signed and the parties remain technically at war.
Korean War:a 1950–1953 war fought between North Korea (supported by the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China) and South Korea (supported by the United Nations, the United States, and the British Commonwealth). The war began when communist North Korean forces invaded South Korea with the approval of the Soviet Union in an attempt to unify the Korean peninsula after its 1945 division at the end of World War II. After three years of fighting, the Korean Armistice Agreement, signed on July 27, 1953, enforced a total cease-fire between military forces while establishing the Korean Demilitarized Zone as a geographical buffer and de facto border between North and South Korea. The Korean War was the first proxy war that highlighted the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold War era.


Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT):a binding international agreement that seeks to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons technologies, further the goal of nuclear disarmament, and promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Entered into force in 1970, the NPT prohibits countries that did not have nuclear weapons at the time from ever developing them. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is tasked with verifying compliance by the treaty’s 190 state signatories. Although North Korea ratified the NPT in 1985, it withdrew from the treaty in 2003 after the IAEA accused the country of illicit nuclear activities.


sanction:a tool of statecraft, frequently involving economic measures such as asset freezes and trade restrictions, used to exact a certain behavior or outcome from another party. The U.S. and EU sanctions against Russian companies and individuals that aim to encourage Russia to end its interference in Ukraine are an example.
Six Party Talks:a series of multilateral negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program, chaired by China and attended by Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, and the United States. The talks began in 2003 as a result of North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Six rounds of negotiations occurred, spanning more than five years and aimed at nuclear disarmament, trade normalization, and improved diplomatic relations. The talks came to a halt in 2009 when North Korea violated previous agreements by engaging in multiple nuclear and missile tests. After a deluge of international condemnation and UN Security Council sanctions, North Korea announced that it would “never again take part in [Six Party Talks] and will not be bound by any agreements reached at the talks.”


United Nations Security Council:the principal UN body charged with maintaining international peace and security. The UN Security Council is the only UN body with the authority to pass resolutions that are binding on the 193 UN member states. It includes five permanent member states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and ten rotating members elected to two-year terms. The five permanent members have veto power over resolutions, making their agreement necessary for a resolution’s approval. This structure provides strong international legitimacy to Security Council resolutions but also stymies action when the major powers disagree.
Role Play Sections
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.1 Role 

Welcome to your role as a participant in the UN Security Council (UNSC)! You should have received an email with your role assignment, but if you did not, you can view your assignment by clicking on the “My Simulations” tab on your account page. At this point, you should have reviewed essential background information about the UN Security Council, read the case, watched the accompanying videos, and perused some of the additional reading. Whether you have been assigned a specific role as an individual or part of a group, we suggest you read the case once again to identify material that is particularly relevant to your role or that requires further investigation. After that, you will conduct independent research as you write your draft resolution clauses and prepare for the role-play.

There are four subsections that follow. Research and Preparation (3.2) will aid your research for the draft resolution clauses and provide additional reading to guide your research; the Guide to the Draft Resolutions (3.3) provides information about position memos and an example; and the Guide to the Role-Play (3.4) provides more information on the in-class role-play.

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.2 Research and Preparation

Your role sheet contains three parts: a description of your role, issues for consideration, and research leads. The role description details the position you will portray in the role-play. The issues for consideration will guide your thinking and assist you in approaching the case from the perspective of your assigned role. Most relevant, however, are the research leads. Going beyond the reports and articles linked to throughout the case and in the reading list, these research leads provide suggested materials and topics for further research specifically relevant to your assigned role. Below are some tips to review as you prepare for the role-play exercise.

Research and Preparation

  • Draw on the case notes, additional case materials, and your own research to familiarize yourself with

    • the goals of the UN Security Council in general and of this Council meeting in particular;
    • the national interests at stake in the case for the country you’re representing and their importance to national security;
    • the aspects of the case most relevant to your country;
    • the elements that a comprehensive UN Security Council resolution on the case should contain; and
    • the major debates or conflicts likely to occur during the role-play. You need not resolve these yourself, of course, but you will want to anticipate them in order to articulate and defend your position in the UNSC deliberation.
  • Set goals for your research. Know which questions you seek to answer and refer back to the case notes, additional readings, and research leads as needed.
  • Make a list of questions that you feel are not fully answered by the given materials. What do you need to research in greater depth? Can your classmates help you understand these subjects?
  • Using the case materials, additional readings, and discussions with your classmates, weigh the relative importance of the interests at stake in the case. Determine where trade-offs might be required and think through the potential consequences of several different policy options.
  • Conduct your research from the perspective of your assigned role, but be sure to consider the full range of country positions and foreign interests, whether diplomatic, military, economic, environmental, moral, or otherwise. This will help you strengthen your policy position and anticipate and prepare for debates in the role-play.
  • Consider what questions or challenges the secretary-general or other UN Security Council members might raise regarding the options you propose and have responses ready.



  • Consult a wide range of sources to gain a full perspective on the issues raised in the case and on policy options. Seek out sources that you may not normally use, such as publications from the region(s) under discussion, unclassified and declassified government documents, and specialized policy reports and journals.
  • Remember: Wikipedia is not a reliable source, but it can be a reasonable starting point. The citations at the bottom of each entry often contain useful resources. 
  • Just as policymakers tackle issues that are controversial and subject to multiple interpretations, so will you in your preparation for the writing assignments and role-play. For this reason, evaluate your sources carefully. Always ask yourself:
    • When was the information produced? Is it still relevant and accurate?
    • Who is writing or speaking and why? Does the author or speaker have a particular motivation or affiliation that you should take into account?
    • Where is the information published? Determine the political leanings of journals, magazines, and newspapers by reading several articles published by each one.
    • Who is the intended audience?
    • Does the author provide sufficient evidence for his or her analysis or opinion? Does the author cite reliable and impartial sources?
    • Does the information appear one-sided? Does it consider multiple points of view?
    • Is the language measured or inflammatory? Do any of the points appear exaggerated?
  • Take note of and cite your sources correctly. This is important not just for reasons of academic integrity, but so that you can revisit them as needed.
  • Ask your teacher which style he or she prefers you use when citing sources, such as Modern Language Association (MLA), Chicago Manual of Style, or Associated Press (AP).

Reading List


2.1 The Issue

BBC, “North Korea’s Missile Programme,” August 10, 2017, http://bbc.com/news/world-asia-17399847.  

Yarno Ritzen, “North Korea: All You Need to Know Explained in Graphics,” Al Jazeera, September 17, 2017, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2017/08/north-korea-explained-graphics-170810121538674.html.

BBC, “North Korea Crisis in 300 Words,” 12 June, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-40871848.


2.2 Background

Alex Ward, “9 Questions about North Korea you were too Embarrassed to Ask,” Vox, Last Updated Jun 11, 2018, https://www.vox.com/world/2017/5/2/15518284/north-korea-trump-explained-kim-jong-un.  

Michael Fry, “National Geographic, Korea, and the 38th Parallel,” National Geographic, August 4, 2013, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/08/130805-korean-war-dmz-armistice-38-parallel-geography.   

Hyung-Jin Kim, “10 Historic Moments in Relations between US, North Korea,” Associated Press, June 11, 2018, https://www.apnews.com/703b80eaf6be4f8192f6750bf3fe1fe3.   


2.3 Role of the United Nations Security Council

James L. Schoff and Feng Lin, “Making Sense of the UN Sanctions on North Korea,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,” https://carnegieendowment.org/publications/interactive/north-korea-sanctions.

Colum Lynch, “U.N. Report: Sanctions Aren’t Stopping North Korea’s Nuclear Program,” Foreign Policy, September 7, 2017, https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/09/07/u-n-report-sanctions-arent-stopping-north-koreas-nuclear-program/.

Zhenhua Lu, “US Clashes with China and Russia over North Korea during UN Talk,” South China Morning Post, September 28, 2018, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/2166081/united-nations-us-odds-china-russia-over-north-korea-sanctions.


Further Reading

Reuters, “Explainer: What will it Cost to Denuclearize North Korea?” June 29, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-nuclear-cost-explainer/explainer-what-will-it-cost-to-denuclearize-north-korea-idUSKBN1JP1LD.

Zack Beauchamp, “Juche, the State Ideology that makes North Koreans Revere Kim Jong Un, Explained,” Vox, June 18 2018, https://www.vox.com/world/2018/6/18/17441296/north-korea-propaganda-ideology-juche.

Nuclear Threat Initiative, North Korea, http://nti.org/learn/countries/north-korea.  

Jayshree Bajoria and Beina Xu, “The Six Party Talks on North Korea’s Nuclear Program,” Council on Foreign Relations, last updated September 30, 2013, http://cfr.org/proliferation/six-party-talks-north-koreas-nuclear-program/p13593.

Max Fisher, “North Korea, Far From Crazy, Is All Too Rational,” New York Times, September 10, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/11/world/asia/north-korea-nuclear-missile-programs-rational.html.

Max Fisher, “What Happened in the Trump-Kim Meeting and why it Matters,” New York Times, June 12, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/12/world/asia/trump-kim-meeting-interpreter.html.

David Blair, “North Korea v South Korea: How the Countries’ Armed Forces Compare,” Telegraph, September 15, 2015, http://telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/northkorea/11603665/North-Korea-v-South-Korea-How-the-countries-armed-forces-compare.html.

William J. Broad et al., “This Missile Could Reach California. But Can North Korea Use It With a Nuclear Weapon?,” New York Times, September 3, 2017, http://nytimes.com/interactive/2017/08/22/world/asia/north-korea-nuclear-weapons.html.

Victor Cha and Robert L. Gallucci, “Stopping North Korea’s Nuclear Threat,” New York Times, January 8, 2016, http://nytimes.com/2016/01/08/opinion/stopping-north-koreas-nuclear-threat.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=4.  

BBC, “North Korea Nuclear Tests: What Did They Achieve?” April 22, 2016, http://bbc.com/news/world-asia-17823706.

Zack Beauchamp, “’The textbook definition of unstable’: Why North Korea’s newest nuclear test is scary,” Vox, September 9, 2016, https://www.vox.com/2016/9/9/12863700/north-korea-nuclear-test-five-bad.

Bruce Cumings, “This is What’s Really Behind North Korea’s Nuclear Provocations,” The Nation, March 23, 2017, https://www.thenation.com/article/this-is-whats-really-behind-north-koreas-nuclear-provocations/.

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea website, “Juche Ideology,” http://korea-dpr.com/juche_ideology.html.

Anna Fifield, “In latest test, North Korea detonates its most powerful nuclear device yet,” Washington Post, September 3, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/north-korea-apparently-conducts-another-nuclear-test-south-korea-says/2017/09/03/7bce3ff6-905b-11e7-8df5-c2e5cf46c1e2_story.html?utm_term=.a0ac69041228.

Anna Fifield, “Photos From North Korea’s East Coast Show How Tough Life Is Away From the Capital,” Washington Post, December 4, 2017, http://washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/12/04/photos-from-north-koreas-east-coast-show-how-tough-life-is-away-from-the-capital.

History.com, “Korean War,” http://history.com/topics/korean-war.

Grace Lee, “The Political Philosophy of Juche,” Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs 3, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 105–112, https://s3.amazonaws.com/berkley-center/030101LeePoliticalPhilosophyJuche.pdf.

National Nuclear Security Administration, “NPT Compliance,” http://nnsa.energy.gov/ourmission/managingthestockpile/nptcompliance.

Michael E. O’Hanlon and Mike Mochizuki, “Toward a Grand Bargain With North Korea,” Brookings Institution, September 1, 2003, http://brookings.edu/articles/toward-a-grand-bargain-with-north-korea.

Madison Park, “North Korea Declares 1953 Armistice Invalid,” CNN, last updated March 11, 2013, http://cnn.com/2013/03/11/world/asia/north-korea-armistice

Jane Perlez and David E. Sanger, “John Kerry Urges China to Curb North Korea’s Nuclear Pursuits,” New York Times, January 27, 2016, http://nytimes.com/2016/01/28/world/asia/us-china-north-korea.html?_r=0.

Will Ripley, “Unprecedented: CNN Goes Inside North Korea’s Secretive Congress,” CNN, May 10, 2016, http://cnn.com/2016/05/10/asia/north-korea-ripley-workers-party-congress.  

Wall Street Journal, “The Rogue-State Nuclear Missile Threat,” February 11, 2016, http://wsj.com/articles/the-rogue-state-icbm-1455237938.

Choe Sang-Hun and David E. Sanger, “Kim Jong-il, North Korean Dictator, Dies,” New York Times, December 19, 2011, http://nytimes.com/2011/12/19/world/asia/kim-jong-il-is-dead.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

S.C., “Why Is the Border Between the Koreas Sometimes Called the ‘38th Parallel’?” Economist, November 5, 2013, http://economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2013/11/economist-explains-1.

Mark Thompson, “Is It Time to Attack North Korea?” Time, March 9, 2016, http://time.com/4252372/north-korea-nuclear-missile-attack.  

Georgy Toloraya, “Russia’s North Korea Conundrum,” Diplomat, March 17, 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2016/03/russias-north-korea-conundrum.  

U.S. Department of State, Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, http://state.gov/t/isn/npt.

World Post, “The Stark Difference Between North and South Korea in 10 Stunning Photos,” May 29, 2014, http://huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/29/dieter-leistner-korea-photos_n_5405585.html.  


Quotation Sources

Antonio Guterres, “We Must Not Sleepwalk into War, Secretary General Warns in General Assembly, Citing Nuclear Peril, Terrorism, Inequality among Most Severe Global Threats,” United Nations, September 19, 2017, https://www.un.org/press/en/2017/sgsm18693.doc.htm.

Associated Press, “UN Approves Toughest Sanctions on North Korea in 20 Years,” Daily Mail, last updated March 2, 2016, http://dailymail.co.uk/wires/ap/article-3472859/UN-votes-Wednesday-tough-new-North-Korea-sanctions.html.

Francois Delattre, “North Korea: It is a Global Threat,” Statement to the United Nations Security Council, July 5, 2017, https://onu.delegfrance.org/North-Korea-It-is-a-global-threat.

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.3 Guide to the Memoranda

A major goal of the Model Diplomacy program is to strengthen your ability to write concise, articulate, and persuasive documents that busy colleagues can absorb quickly. You will complete two assignments: a set of draft clauses for a UN Security Council resolution and a policy review memo. These assignments will improve your writing skills and give you a taste of how global foreign policy is conceived, coordinated, and executed.


UN Security Council Documents


What is a UN resolution?

A UN resolution is a formal expression of the opinion or will of a UN body. Resolutions follow a common, relatively strict format and are published online once approved. They are written and approved (or rejected) in a complex process. They typically go through several drafts, and multiple countries are typically involved, though a single country may write a draft resolution on its own and seek a direct vote. You will navigate an abbreviated version of this collaborative process in your role-play.

A Security Council resolution has three sections:

  • header
  • preambular clauses
  • operative clauses

The entire resolution is one long sentence; individual items are separated by semicolons and commas. The header gives the date, an alphabetical list of countries that have contributed to the document (sponsors), and the name of the issuing body (in this case, the Security Council). This body serves as the subject of the sentence.

Preambular clauses provide a framework through which to view the issue by outlining past action on the subject (usually in treaties, conventions, and previous resolutions) and explaining the purpose of or need for a resolution. Preambular clauses are unnumbered, begin with adjectives or verbs, and end with commas. Common preambular words include

  • alarmed by
  • considering
  • convinced
  • emphasizing
  • guided by
  • having adopted
  • keeping in mind
  • mindful of
  • (re)affirming
  • recognizing
  • taking note/noting
  • underscoring

An example of an existing preambular clause is

  • Underlining that the NPT remains the cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation regime and the essential foundation for the pursuit of nuclear disarmament and for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Operative clauses state the opinion of the organ and the actions to be taken. Unlike preambular clauses, operative clauses are sequentially numbered and follow a logical progression, each clause calling for a specific action. Operative clauses begin with italicized verbs, sometimes modified by adverbs, and end with semicolons (with the exception of the last clause). Common operative words include

  • authorizes
  • calls for
  • condemns
  • decides
  • emphasizes
  • (re)affirms
  • recommends
  • reiterates
  • requests
  • stresses
  • supports
  • urges

The last operative clause in a Security Council resolution is almost always “Decides to remain seized of the matter.” In line with Article 12 of the UN Charter, this language keeps the issue under the Security Council’s authority and prevents the General Assembly from taking its own action. An example existing operative clause is

  • Urges all States that have either not signed or not ratified the Treaty, particularly the eight remaining Annex 2 States, to do so without further delay.

Click here to see a full example of a UN Security Council resolution.

What is a presidential statement?

A presidential statement is made by the president of the Security Council on behalf of the council. It is adopted at a formal council meeting, issued as an official document, and published. No formal vote is taken on a presidential statement; instead, it is adopted by consensus (the agreement of all members, though some may abstain). Member states have the option of voicing opposition to the statement, which is then recorded in the document. Often released when the council cannot reach consensus on a resolution or is prevented from passing one by a permanent member’s veto, presidential statements are similar in content and tone to resolutions but tend to be less specific. They are not legally binding.

All presidential statements generally follow the same loose structure, which is more flexible and relaxed than that of a UN resolution:

  1. Overview: an overview of the meeting or informal session that gave rise to the statement in question.
  2. Body: five to fifteen paragraphs, each beginning with “The Security Council,” reflecting the consensus opinion of council members and sometimes providing an overview of past actions on the subject. A presidential statement is often used to reaffirm the council’s support for ongoing UN missions and initiatives or to provide progress reports on these initiatives. 
  3. Signature: the signature of the president of the Security Council.

Click here to see a full example of a UN Security Council presidential statement.

Guidelines for UN Security Council Draft Resolution Clauses 


Your assignment prior to the role-play is to prepare a set of prepared clauses for a potential Security Council resolution. These clauses, along with those of other students, will form the basis of the discussion in the role-play.

You should bring

  • two to three preambular clauses that describe the issue at hand, consider the international context, and outline previous agreements and existing organizations; and
  • three to four operative clauses that present responses to the situation.

Each operative clause should present a complete proposal. Make sure that your proposed solutions are within the powers of the Security Council and are practical. Your operative clauses might be designed to work in concert (perhaps economic sanctions, mediation, and a peacekeeping force) or might be a set of alternatives from which you hope one will be adopted (perhaps three peacekeeping proposals that differ in their details).

In writing each of your operative clauses, consider the following points:

  • Who: Who is acting, and for whose benefit?
  • What: What is the response specifically?
  • When: When will it be implemented? Is there a deadline, a time frame, or recurrence?
  • Where: Where will it be implemented specifically?
  • Why: Why is this solution effective?
  • How: How will this solution be implemented? If countries must support the response, how will they be persuaded to do so?
  • Funding: How will the response be funded?

If your operative clauses start to get long and messy, use subsidiary clauses!

The goal should be to create clauses that include all the information necessary for putting the plan into action. It can be helpful to imagine an official tasked with carrying out the resolution and asking whether they have all the information they need to implement it.

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.4 Guide to the Role-play

Your role-play will feature three types of UN Security Council meetings:

  1. Public Meeting (Debate)

Public meetings are the most common type of formal Security Council meeting. They are open to the press and verbatim records are published. In addition to Security Council members, non–council members directly affected by the matter at hand may be invited to participate.

  1. Public Meeting (Adoption)

Adoption meetings are public meetings in which the Security Council votes on resolutions and presidential statements. In addition to Security Council members, non–council members can request to be invited and make statements but cannot vote.

  1. Informal Meeting

Informal meetings are held outside the Security Council chamber, have no rigid procedure or official record, and allow for private discussions and negotiations. They are usually used to develop and discuss draft resolutions and presidential statements.

Role-play Guidelines

  1. Stay in your role at all times.
  2. Follow the general protocol for speaking.
    1. Signaling to Speak

      1. The president of the UN Security Council will administer the meeting and should decide on a speaking order. Wait to be called on by the president.
      2. If you would like to speak out of turn, signal to the president, perhaps by raising a hand or a placard, and wait until the president calls on you.
    2. Form of Speech
      1. Address country representatives as Mr. or Madam Ambassador.
      2. Do not exceed predetermined time limits. If you exceed these limits, the president will cut you off.
      3. Frame your comments with a purpose and stay on topic.
    3. Listening
      1. Take notes while others are speaking.
      2. Refrain from whispering or conducting side conversations.
      3. Applause and booing are not appropriate. Your words will be the most effective tool to indicate agreement or disagreement.


Role-play Tips

  • There is no right or wrong way to participate in a role-play, but the better prepared you are, the more likely you will be able to advance a position effectively, and the more you and your classmates will get out of the experience.
  • Be patient during the role-play. Do not hold back from sharing your perspective, but be sure to give others a chance to do the same.
  • Where there are competing interests, make the judgment calls that you would make if you were a country representative, as informed by your earlier consideration of potential trade-offs. Ensure that the consequences of various decisions are carefully weighed.
  • Where appropriate, find common ground with other members of the UN Security Council during the role-play. With whom might you work in advocating your proposed policies? You may find that combining several policy ideas into a new proposal with broader support is an effective strategy if the debate is at an impasse
  • Decide whether you would like to develop a potential resolution collaboratively in a large group, in a smaller group of like-minded countries, or by yourself. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each approach?
  • Think critically about the strengths and weaknesses of your approach as the discussion continues. It is important to subject your own arguments to the same scrutiny that you apply to those of your fellow students. Rethink your arguments as appropriate to take into account the feedback and counterarguments that other members present.
  • You cannot win or lose the role-play. Instead, you should aim to offer a well-reasoned articulation of your position while making concessions and adjustments where you believe they are warranted.
Line Item
1. Public Meeting
2 minutes per participant
  1. Receive a five-minute briefing from the secretary-general on the issue to be discussed.
  2. Present opening statements.
  3. Crystalize the central questions of debate.
Procedural Notes

During opening statements, the president of the UN Security Council will recognize country representatives in the order in which they request to speak, and no representative may speak again if others have not yet spoken. Following opening statements, country representatives are free to openly debate the statements made, evaluating the various positions on their merits.

2. Informal Meeting
30 to 60 seconds per participant
  1. Debate each participant’s proposed clauses.
  2. Edit, add, or drop proposed clauses and combine them into one or more draft resolutions.
  3. Draft a presidential statement using proposed clauses and/or new material if no draft resolution appears acceptable to the group.
Procedural Notes

The president will recognize country representatives in the order in which they request to speak. Representatives should limit their statements to one minute each, but if time allows the president may permit them to speak longer. The president may also invite any participant to speak as he or she deems it appropriate. Any participant may motion for a ten- to fifteen-minute break, during which representatives can move freely and work on their draft resolutions individually or in small groups.  

3. Public Meeting
1 to 2 minutes per participant
  1. Hear summaries of any draft resolutions as well as arguments for and against adoption.
  2. Vote on draft resolutions in order of submission.
  3. Attempt to adopt a presidential statement by consensus if no resolutions are proposed or passed.
Procedural Notes

The president will call first on the draft resolution’s main author(s) and then on other countries that wish to make arguments for or against the resolution. To be adopted, Security Council resolutions must receive at least nine votes in favor and no dissenting votes (vetoes) from any of the five permanent members. A state may abstain, often to indicate ambivalence or mild disapproval (in contrast to strong opposition). According to the charter, abstentions are mandatory if the state is a party to the dispute in question. Abstentions by permanent members do not count as vetoes; the resolution will pass if it receives the necessary nine votes.

Wrap Up Sections
Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.1 The Debrief

If time permits, you will participate in a debrief following the UN Security Council’s final vote.  

Be active in this debrief. The role-play might seem to be the most challenging part of the experience, but the debrief is equally important. It will reinforce what you learned during the role-play exercise and refine your analytical skills. It will also force you to step out of your role and to view the case from a personal perspective. You will have the opportunity to discuss any challenges you encountered and how you felt about the UN Security Council vote. The debrief will close with a reflection on the complexities and challenges of multilateral negotiations. This should help clarify your understanding of what you learned and answer any lingering questions. This exercise will also assist you in completing your final assignment, the policy review memo.  

Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.2 Reflecting on the Experience

The following questions are proposed to guide the discussion in the in-class debrief. This is not an exhaustive list and may vary depending on how your role-play exercise unfolded.  If your class does not hold a debrief, these questions will nonetheless help you reflect on the role-play and write your policy review memo: 

  • Which issues received adequate attention during the role-play? Which, if any, received excessive attention or were left unresolved?
  • Did the group consider long-term strategic concerns, or was it able to focus only on the immediate issue and the short-term implications of policy options?
  • Did time constraints affect the discussion and influence the drafting process?
  • What techniques did you use to convince others that your policy position was the best option? What were successful strategies employed by others?
  • What were the most significant challenges to your position? Did any make you rethink or adjust your position?
  • Did your points cause anyone else to change his or her arguments or position?
  • What political, economic, and other issues arose that you had not previously considered?
  • How did the simulation change your perspective on multilateral negotiations?
  • If you could go back, what would you have done differently in presenting and advocating your point of view?
Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.3 Policy Review Memo

The policy review memo is your final assignment in the Model Diplomacy simulation. In the debrief discussion after the role-play, you and your classmates went beyond the role you played and thought about the issue from a variety of perspectives. Now that the UN Security Council meeting and debrief are behind you, you can consider whether you personally support your recommended policy given the subsequent discussion. Shedding your institutional role and writing from a personal point of view, you will craft a policy review memo that outlines and reflects on the policy options discussed, incorporating and critiquing the UN Security Council’s decision where appropriate.

No matter which role you played originally, take into account all that you have learned. Your instructor will want to see if and how your understanding of the issue and of the policymaking process has evolved from that expressed in your position memo.

As for the position memo, a sample policy review memo is provided for your reference.

Policy Review Memo Guidelines

  • Subject (one short paragraph): Offer a brief statement about the significance of the issue as it relates to global politics and international organizations. Provide just enough information about the crisis so the reader can understand the purpose and importance of your memo. Be sure to include an initial statement of whether you agree or disagree with the UN Security Council’s decision.
  • Options and analysis (one paragraph per option): Present and analyze the options that were discussed during the debate, deliberation, and/or debrief. Discuss their drawbacks, benefits, and resource needs. Be sure to acknowledge any weaknesses or disadvantages of the proposed options.
  • Recommendation and justification (several paragraphs): Identify and explain your preferred policy option or options in more detail. Here, you can explain why you personally favor one or more of the recommendations that you initially presented or the UN Security Council voted on, or different options entirely. If you choose to support the options you presented in your position memo, make sure to justify why you feel yours is still the best position.
  • Reflection (one to two paragraphs): Discuss how your position and the final UN Security Council decision are similar; if they are not, discuss how they are different. Use this section to give your thoughts on what the UN Security Council should have included in its resolution or presidential statement and what you would have done differently. Remember, this is from your point of view; you are no longer advocating on behalf of a country or a UN agency.