North Korea is at it again. Less than a week after its leader Kim Jong-un called for better ties with South Korea, the reclusive regime announced that it had successfully conducted its fourth nuclear test since 2006. It claims to have detonated a hydrogen bomb, which, if proven true, would add a much more powerful weapon to Pyongyang’s arsenal. However, early indications lead to serious doubts about North Korea’s claims. The seismic shocks created by the underground explosion were smaller than its 2013 nuclear test, which either indicates that the bomb fizzled or that the regime’s claim of a new type of weapon was all bluff.
Regardless of the nature of the test, this move further demonstrates that the North Korean regime has no interest in deviating from the nuclear path it has been following steadfastly since the 1980s. North Korea’s nuclear status has been enshrined in its constitution, and its domestic propaganda constantly uses the country’s purported technological advances to shore up national pride and support for the regime. It is unrealistic to expect denuclearization under the current leadership.
As with every provocation committed by North Korea, debate ensues with regards to the most appropriate response from the international community. Many ask why we do not put more pressure on a country that has so brazenly defied international law and endangered regional security for decades. North Korea, after all, is a relatively small and poor country in the midst of an economically dynamic region.
The reality is that options are painfully limited. Historically, neither pressure nor appeasement has led to meaningful change in North Korea’s approach. Adopting a hardline toward the country has always led it to further harden its stance, while reaching out to Pyongyang, which South Korea tried in the early 2000s, led to superficially better relations but no real change in the government’s foreign policy.
Furthermore, there is little to no appetite in the region for any sort of Iraq-like armed intervention that would topple the regime or secure North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. The United States would not act alone, and both China – which dreads instability at its borders – and South Korea, which would bear the brunt of a North Korean retaliation, would staunchly oppose the use of force.
This leaves sanctions. The United Nations Security Council has already adopted numerous resolutions and imposed various sanctions in the hopes of forcing North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile programs. On top of these measures, the United States has maintained its own set of unilateral sanctions targeting top North Korean officials related to the weapons programs.
But while North Korea remains one of the most heavily sanctioned countries in the world, there is still room to increase coercive measures. The United States, for instance, will likely add new individuals and entities to its sanctions list, while the UN Security Council should adopt a new resolution within the next few days or weeks.
However, North Korea has proven adept at circumventing international sanctions. It has been able to acquire sensitive technologies through illicit international networks while learning to develop some weapon technologies internally. Moreover, despite recent efforts to diversify its economic partners, North Korea’s international trade remains very low by international standards, which lessens the bite of economic sanctions.
Consequently, while we witness the latest round of international condemnation, including that of Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, we can expect the unfortunate repetition of the exact same cycle of events. Once the current crisis abates, the best we can hope for, barring a collapse of the Kim Jong-un government, is a moratorium on nuclear tests and a sound surveillance regime to prevent proliferation. Not the brightest of prospects, but nobody should be surprised by the enduring stalemate.