The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) launched its sixth nuclear test this past Sunday, September 3rd.
The test was North Korea’s largest successful nuclear detonation and caused a 6.3-magnitude earthquake near the nuclear test site in Punggye-ri. This was in turn followed by another earthquake, reportedly a result of a tunnel collapse at the site.
This latest test is claimed by North Korea to be a hydrogen bomb, or H-bomb but it’s more likely that it was boosted-fission nuclear bomb. These nuclear warheads can be attached to an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). In July, North Korea tested two ICBMs which could be capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
Just two days after the test launch a North Korean spokesman called the test a ‘gift package’ for the U.S. and threatened that more gift packages are ready to send if the United States and the U.N. continue their provocations and attempts to pressure the DPRK.
In early August, a resolution was unanimously passed by the United Nations Security Council banning North Korean exports and limiting investments in the country. These sanctions were passed in an attempt to condemn North Korea’s missile test violations and demand North Korea give up its prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The new sanctions called for a total ban on North Korea exporting its coal, iron and iron ore, and seafood.
Although the latest sanctions are the strongest ever enacted upon North Korea, they have not yet been successful, as we can see from nuclear test. None of the sanctions the U.N. has imposed on North Korea since 2006 have been successful in part because the North Korean regime believes a nuclear arsenal is a necessary protection from regime change. As a result sanctions have a limited impact.
North Korea has proven resistant to external pressure thanks in part to its persistence in finding ways around sanctions. North Korea is able to get around sanctions because there are still countries trading with North Korea and are ignoring the existing U.N. sanctions. There is also the possibility that the North Koreans will try to find new goods to sell, goods that aren’t part of the sanctions such as the manufacture and sale of clothing. North Korea still trades with more than 100 nations, including Russia, India and China.
After this most recent test, China, one of North Korea’s largest trade partners, agreed that the U.N. Security Council should pass more sanctions but also urged continued dialogue between the countries.
The countries who support the U.N. sanctions need to better enforce the ones already in place against North Korea but also follow the U.S. example in targeting secondary sanctions on Chinese citizens and banks for helping finance North Korean companies.
There needs to be a combination of sanctions, military defense and diplomacy between the U.N. and the DPRK because while sanctions are preferable to war, they aren’t a viable strategy on their own.
In military defense, there is currently about 23,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and an additional deployment of troops, alongside the addition of the recently deployed THAAD missile defense systems, would show North Korea that they can’t go up against the U.S. militarily especially as the U.S. and South Korea continue their military exercises and overflights.
While the U.S. military believes that military action is not off the table, it is a risky path to take because even if a single U.S. strike is fired on North Korea, Kim Jong-un may believe more strikes are imminent and will strike back either through its nuclear weapons if they aren’t destroyed in the strike or its conventional artillery.
If the U.S. tried to preemptively target North Korean nuclear facilities, it may retaliate in a number of ways, such as utilizing artillery to barrage Seoul potentially killing tens of thousands of civilians. There is some skepticism about the effectiveness of North Korea’s artillery concentration but the risk of casualties may be intolerable to the U.S. and its allies.
The last component to stopping North Korea is diplomacy but this requires the U.S., China, Russia, South Korea and Japan to maintain a united front against North Korea.
Currently, these 5 countries are formally agreement that North Korea and its nuclear and missile programs need to be stopped, but there’s substantial disagreement as to available means. The primary U.S. interest is to prevent North Korea from expanding and proliferation its nuclear weapons program, while China’s preferred outcome requires the continuation of the North Korean regime. South Korea’s goal remains peaceful denuclearization and reunification after a period of liberalizing the North Korean economy. The parties’ different preferences and levels of risk tolerance creates fissures the North Koreans have so far successfully exploited.