Another North Korean Nuclear Test after Decades-long Sanctions


Are we on the right track or do we need a new strategy?

On the morning of September 9th, the 67th anniversary of the establishment of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a senior official at South Korea’s Defense Ministry confirmed that North Korea conducted its fifth underground nuclear test at Punggye-ri, where it had conducted its previous four nuclear tests. This fifth nuclear test produced the most powerful explosion yet. The last nuclear test in January 2016 registered a magnitude of 4.8 on the Richter scale with an explosive yield of six to nine kilotons of TNT. The latest test registered a 5.2 to 5.3 magnitude with an explosive yield of fifteen to twenty kilotons. By comparison, the nuclear bombs dropped at Hiroshima produced an explosive yield of fifteen kilotons.

Whether North Korea has actually achieved the “standardization of the nuclear warhead,” meaning that warheads could be mounted on ballistic missiles as North Korea’s Nuclear Weapon Institute has claimed, is still debatable. However, the fifth nuclear test carries two messages loud and clear. First, it is clear that North Korea has made actual progress in terms of its nuclear technology, despite strong international sanctions levied by the United Nations and the United States. Second, North Korea is sending a political signal that it will continue to expand its dangerous nuclear arsenal if Washington stays on its current path. Given these consequences, the fifth nuclear test forces us to review our past strategies and raises a fundamental question: are we on the right track, or do we need a new strategy?

From the beginning of the George W. Bush administration, the international community’s approach to the North Korean nuclear crisis has been predominated by efforts to isolate North Korea through sanctions, particularly financial sanctions. In response to North Korea’s first nuclear test in October 2006, the UN member states unanimously adopted UN Security Council Resolution 1718, prohibiting member states from importing any goods connected to illegal nuclear weapon programs, or any luxury goods from North Korea. In addition, the resolution froze all financial resources connected to North Korea’s WMD program within each member state’s jurisdiction, and allowed inspection of cargo ships carrying goods related to the program. Although the  U.S.-North Korean 2.13 agreement and 10.2 agreement, occurring a year after the resolution, raised some hopes for a peaceful de-escalation of the nuclear crisis, North Korea defied the hopes of the international community by conducting its second nuclear test in May 2009. Ever since then, the international community has consistently expanded and enhanced the sanctions against North Korea through UNSC Resolutions 1874, 2094  and 2270, which U.S Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power regards as the one that “goes further than any UN sanction regime in two decades.”

Along with the UNSC resolutions, the United States unilaterally adopted six executive orders, aiming to add further pressure on North Korea. The six executive orders aimed to cut as many of North Korea’s financial resources that could be used for its nuclear and missile program as possible. The executive orders—order numbers 13466, 13551, 13570, 13619, 13722—and the North Korean Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 froze all U.S accounts and financial assets within U.S territories connected to the North Korean government and prohibits any financial contribution to individuals or agencies holding the frozen accounts or assets.

Despite a decade-long trial in levying incremental international sanctions to isolate North Korea and dry its financial resources, North Korea continued to conduct its nuclear tests. It took less than a year for North Korea to conduct its fifth nuclear test after the “strongest sanction ever”—UNSC Resolution 2270—was adopted. The fact that the fifth nuclear test yielded the strongest explosion yet recorded indicates that North Korea did achieve technological advancement in its nuclear program. Although its capacity to produce plutonium is thought to be limited to six kilotons per year, some experts assume that North Korea currently holds stockpiles of 32 to 54 kilograms of plutonium, enough for six to eight bombs, and 300 to 400 kg of highly-enriched uranium, a critical component for nuclear bombs.

Furthermore, the time interval between each nuclear test has been dramatically reduced. More than two years separated each of the first three tests. The fifth nuclear test, however, was carried out fewer than eight months after the fourth test. This is the first time that North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests in the same year. This reduced time interval may signal that Kim Jung-un is more determined to pursue nuclear armament than his father Kim Jung-il. Given that the primary purpose of the sanctions were to prevent North Korea’s attainment of new technologies or components for its nuclear program and to induce changes within North Korean regime to give up its nuclear program and open up its economy, it is hard to say that these sanctions were successful.

Determining what strategy to pursue to bring this recalcitrant state back to goals of nonproliferation is controversial. Different perspectives offer different prescriptions. Victor Cha, former director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council and a current professor at Georgetown University, argues that “the time is on our side.” In other words, the pressure and difficulties imposed on the North Korean regime by sanctions will be amplified as time goes on, potentially leading to the collapse of Kim’s regime at the end. Proponents of this argument, such as Cha and American diplomat Christopher Hill, tend to point out the lack of Chinese compliance with the sanction regime as a major reason for why the sanctions have not been as effective as desired. Cha argues in his book Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies that North Korea wouldn’t survive the sanctions if the aid from Beijing stopped. Their prescription is focused on inducing more cooperation from China.

U.S leverage on China, however, is more easily suggested than accomplished. Chinese interests in maintaining stability of the North Korean regime primarily stems from its interest in maintaining a buffer state against South Korea and Western geopolitical interests. This security concern has been amplified as South Korea recently decide to deploy Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD). China vehemently criticized THAAD, explicitly stating that the deployment of THAAD is a “serious threat to the region’s geopolitical balance.” China fears that the powerful radar of THAAD could jeopardize the military forces not only of North Korea but also of its own. Given this tension between the U.S and China, Chinese willingness to implement the recent UN sanctions it already signed or the prospect of joining in further sanctions against North Korea remains doubtful.

A more realistic prescription may be found in what Young-kwan Yoon, former Minister for Foreign Affairs of South Korea and current professor at Seoul National University, has suggested. Professor Yoon emphasized the importance of underlying economic motivations. According to him, the Soviet Union’s suspension of fuel aid and the Great Famine in the 1990s severely weakened North Korea’s capacity to operate conventional military systems, which require fossil fuels as well as many military personnel. North Korea’s economic motivations, Yoon argues, can be seen in several instances such as the Agree Framework of 1994 in which North Korea agreed to nuclear facilities in return for 50,000 tons of oil aid, or the February 29th agreement in which North Korea agreed to a moratorium and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections in exchange for additional fuel aids.

Professor David C. Kang of USC also added that North Korea’s security concerns regarding the United States are, to some degree, genuine. Within the past few decades, North Korea lost its biggest ally, the Soviet Union, and witnessed U.S. intervention in Iraq under the Bush doctrine of preemptive strike. Given this context, both scholars argue, the current sanctions regime only reinforces both economic and security concerns for North Korea. They suggest the end of ‘strategic patience,’ greater diplomatic efforts, and economic engagement with North Korea. They believe that this new strategy, a combination of diplomacy and a better economic relationship, embraces the complex nature of the nuclear crisis, and thus is more likely to bring about better results.

The last decade of dealing with the North Korean nuclear crisis has been marked by hard-liner sanctions against North Korea. With the central leadership of the United States, the international community has sought to dry the North Korean government’s financial resources, used for both nuclear and non-nuclear programs. The international community has isolated North Korea from international trade and is seeking to eliminate North Korean diplomats’ illegal activities such as drug selling in order to further cut off any inflow of dollars to Kim’s regime. Despite this decade-long effort, we face another North Korean nuclear test. As the fifth nuclear test shows, North Korea is advancing in its nuclear technologies and its leader becomes more determined. The deployment of THAAD forces us to question Chinese willingness to implement the UNSC Resolution 2270 it signed a few months ago and its willingness to join in further sanctions against North Korea. All of these inevitably poses a question of the efficiency and the future of the current strategies and sheds a light on the necessity of a new strategy to deal with this rogue state.

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