North Korea’s detonation of a nuclear test, its third, just a few hours before President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, was an orchestrated insult. The reclusive country, led by the inscrutable Kim Jong Un, had already announced its nuclear ambitions in December, two days after the United Nations Security Council imposed broad sanctions in response to the country’s test launch of a long-range rocket. The strategy of containment and isolation while seeking to thwart North Korea’s nuclear ambitions is clearly faltering. But, unfortunately, it is still the best strategy available for the United States. China, on the other hand, may provide a way out.
For North Korea’s immature leader, who finds meaning in symbolic numbers and anniversaries, stepping on Obama’s speech was a way to rally his nation and reinforce his hold on its military. There was hope that Kim, a 29-year-old who took power after his father’s death last year, might have been a liberalizing force in the impoverished country. Instead, a dangerous sense of nationalistic pride has taken hold.
The immediate question is what North Korea actually did Tuesday — whether it detonated a device involving plutonium or uranium. Until now, North Korea has only detonated two plutonium warheads, large and bulky and with limited delivery capability. If, as it wants the world to believe and as evidence seems to suggest, it has now detonated a bigger bomb of highly enriched uranium, that would mean North Korea has secretly maintained a centrifuge facility. This, coupled with its growing ballistic missile capability, would threaten Japan or South Korea.
Before the test, Secretary of State John Kerry spent his first weekend on the job speaking to counterparts in Asian countries, vowing further sanctions should North Korea go forward with a provocation that was, at that time, merely threatened. Now, the UN Security Council is moving ahead with the sanctions Kerry promised.
But it may be that North Korea’s test is self-defeating. Until now, China had remained a stable, if sometimes critical, ally of its communist neighbor. In the lead-up to the nuclear test, China appeared to be getting more annoyed, stating that should North Korea proceed, China would “reduce its assistance” to the country. Kim went on to defy even his friends in Beijing, insulting China’s new premier Xi Jinping.
China has every incentive to seek stability in the region, and it knows that North Korea is a dangerous wild card. The realization that seemingly no amount of carrots or sticks will convince North Korea to stop its nuclear ambitions could force China to adopt a tougher stance. So while the United States pursues global sanctions, China can deliver a more powerful message on its own by cutting trade or ending diplomatic relations. The world’s problem is now China’s.