By Justin Bresolin and Usha Sahay
Late on the night of Monday, February 11th, seismic detectors picked up signals of seismic activity in North Korea, measuring a 4.9 on the Richter scale. As Reuters pointed out, “North Korea is not prone to seismic activity.” Indeed, the tremors were an indication that North Korea had conducted the nuclear test it had been threatening for some time, in retaliation for sanctions placed against it after last December’s rocket launch.
This test was North Korea’s third test since 2006, and the latest in a long series of North Korean provocations (see this handy timeline for a full history). But while it’s tempting to dismiss the recent test as just another North Korean bluster, there is, in fact, more to the story this time around. North Korea claimed that it carried out a “high level” test with “a miniaturised and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously.” Details about the test are still unclear, and the regime is prone to exaggerated statements, but many experts believe that the possibility of a miniaturized warhead – and indications that North Korea may now be relying on uranium rather than plutonium – should be a wake-up call for the United States. As Jeffrey Lewis put it in Foreign Policy:
“We have a tendency to see North Korea’s nuclear program as a vaguely ridiculous enterprise that exists largely to extort the United States. This view underestimates North Korea’s ambition with regard to its nuclear weapons program and the importance that the leadership in Pyongyang places on it.”
Certainly the effect on North Korea’s neighbors is one reason to be worried: from a regional perspective, the test is already poised to be “profoundly destabilizing.” In downtown Seoul, angry protests have already broken out, and incoming South Korean president Park Geun Hye is already backing away from her campaign promise of renewed engagement with North Korea. The upcoming president herself announced that South Korea will not tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea “under any circumstances.” The test may lead to calls for strengthened missile defense in both South Korea and Japan.
North Korea is also fast facing the loss of perhaps its greatest asset – China. Traditionally North Korea’s staunch ally and greatest source of political leverage in the global arena, Beijing has grown increasingly alienated from North Korea. With its own ongoing efforts at establishing productive economic and diplomatic relations, continued unconditional defense of North Korea can result in negative consequences for Beijing. China’s stern message of disapproval to Beijing’s North Korean ambassador and promise of a “heavy price” for continued defiance of international rules makes clear that North Korea now finds itself completely alone.
The fraying of ties between China and North Korea raises an interesting and important question: what do we do now? As our colleague Duyeon Kim pointed out, U.S. policy risks continuing the current “vicious cycle” of provocation, tough talk, sanctions, and silence. Clearly, a new approach is needed, and China’s increased frustration with its isolated ally may offer an opportunity for a more coherent and effective policy. While China has supported recent Security Council resolutions against North Korea, many analysts agree that it can do more to send a stern message to its smaller neighbor.
Relatedly, sanctions can be improved, or made “smarter,” in ways that more directly target North Korea’s ability to move forward with its nuclear program. Sanctions expert George Lopez argued recently that further sanctions should be “product-focused,” specifically emphasizing North Korea’s nuclear program. This avoids throttling the DPRK to the point that violent retaliation is the only solution, and may provide the leverage that has long eluded the Security Council. The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) made a similar proposal for a focus on proliferation financing sanctions.
But added pressure must not be the only ingredient of a new approach. There must also be a clear incentive for a halt to nuclear testing – North Korea must be made to see that a sincere effort to change can and will result in a beneficial reward. This is not appeasement, as officials in the State Department are so fond of saying; this is a clear, deliberate application of U.S. leverage to return an element of control to our side. As Greg Thielmann and Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association put it, “Naming and shaming and further sanctions on the DPRK are certainly justified in the wake of the latest nuclear test, but by themselves, such responses have not produced adequate results.”
While the way forward may not be crystal clear, we’ve seen that multilateral pressure, a blend of incentives and penalties, and, above all, a commitment to diplomatic engagement can produce real results. Let’s hope that the next four years bring about a renewed push on all three of those counts to fix a flailing policy and manage one of the key threats to the global nonproliferation regime.