Trade Sanctions Not War, Law Experts Say

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A U.N.-sanctioned trade embargo against North Korea would not be an act of war, say international law experts.

Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter gives the Security Council power to take economic or military action when there is "any threat to the peace . . ."

And yet, acts of war can depend on the eye of the beholder in the murky world of international law. North Korea can continue to claim a trade embargo is an act of war whether or not such a claim is legally correct.

"Any country can consider any act to be an act of war," says Howard Levie, professor emeritus at St. Louis Univerity Law School. "What is an act of war is a subjective decision by the country concerned."

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, concluded Thursday that North Korea had made it impossible to determine if nuclear fuel has been diverted to a weapons program.

North Korea's refusal to allow thorough inspection of its nuclear program violates the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that it signed.

Enforcement of the treaty falls to the United Nations. Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter says the Security Council "shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression . . ." Article 41 permits the Security Council to conduct "complete or partial interruption of economic relations." If that's not enough, Article 42 permits "blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces . . ."

North Korea is a U.N. member, but has not accepted the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice, the so-called World Court. So North Korea could not go to the court to challenge actions taken against it.

If China blocks Security Council action with a veto or a threatened veto, the legal situation gets cloudy. …