Time to deploy ThaadOn September 8, North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test, the second since January 2016. The U.S. Geologic Survey reported a 5.3-magnitude seismic event consistent with a man-made explosion near the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. This seismic level is consistent with, but higher than, North Korea’s previous nuclear tests, yet scientists have not yet provided an estimate of the explosive yield.
After the January nuclear test, North Korea claimed to have detonated a hydrogen bomb, but experts concluded it was more likely a boosted-fission explosion rather than a thermonuclear fusion hydrogen bomb. Such a weapon would be larger than its first three nuclear tests (and the 1945 U.S. atomic weapons) but not of the magnitude of a hydrogen fusion bomb.
This year North Korea has engaged in a rapid-fire series of nuclear and missile tests. In addition to the two nuclear tests, Kim Jong-un has successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, a road-mobile intermediate-range missile, a submarine-launched ballistic missile, upgraded medium- and short-range missiles, re-entry vehicle technology, a new solid-fuel rocket engine and an improved liquid-fuel ICBM engine.
During Kim Jong-un’s four-year reign, Pyongyang has conducted 37 missile tests, more than twice as many as his father Kim Jong-il did during 17 years in office. North Korea currently has the ability to threaten South Korea and Japan with nuclear weapons, target U.S. bases as far away as Guam and it continues to develop a nuclear-tipped ICBM to threaten the American homeland.
UN Security Council members will convene an emergency meeting to respond to Pyongyang’s latest violation of UN resolutions. The council tends to reserve its harshest responses for nuclear tests. In March, the UN passed Unscr 2270, which included the strongest sanctions to date. The tougher resolution reflects growing international concern over Pyongyang’s growing nuclear capabilities and its resolve to confront the regime’s defiance.
China remains the wild card in UN deliberations, however, typically demanding weaker responses and only lackadaisically enforcing required sanctions. Beijing recently prevented any UN response to a North Korean missile test in retaliation for U.S. plans to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system to South Korea. But subsequently, it agreed to a strongly-worded UN press statement to Pyongyang’s most recent missile test.
In response to the latest nuclear test, the U.S. and its allies should urge the United Nations to close several loopholes to Unscr 2270, most notably eliminating the “livelihood purposes” exemption on the ban of the North Korean export of its resources. But China will remain a reluctant partner, fearful that a more resolute international response could trigger North Korean escalatory behavior or regime collapse.
China’s reluctance to strongly pressure its ally provides Pyongyang a feeling of impunity that encourages it toward further belligerence. North Korea is willing to directly challenge China’s calls for peace, stability and denuclearization by repeatedly upping the ante to achieve its objectives, including buying time to further augment its nuclear and missile capabilities.
The Obama administration has also pulled its punches on implementing U.S. sanctions on North Korea until pressured by recent Congressional legislation (the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enforcement Act), stipulating mandatory enforcement of U.S. law. The administration has still not imposed a single secondary sanction on Chinese entities facilitating prohibited North Korean actions.
Sanctions and targeted financial measures may take time to have an impact on the regime and its financial condition. But in the short-term, such measures enforce U.S. and international law, impose a penalty on violators and constrain the inflow and export of prohibited items for the nuclear and missile programs.
The difficulty will be maintaining international resolve to stay the course. Already, some have expressed impatience with the months-old sanctions and advocated a return to the decades-long attempts at diplomacy.
The United States and its allies must concurrently take steps to augment their defenses against the rapidly expanding North Korean nuclear and missile threats, including deploying the Thaad ballistic missile defense (BMD) system to South Korea, increasing South Korean integration into the comprehensive allied BMD network and deploying sea-based ballistic missile defense against the North Korean submarine missile threat.
*The author is a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.