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A Big Blast in North Korea, and Big Questions on U.S. Policy

GENEVA — North Korea’s latest test of an atomic weapon leaves the United States with an uncomfortable choice: Stick with a policy of incremental sanctions that has clearly failed to stop the country’s nuclear advances, or pick among alternatives that range from the highly risky to the repugnant.

A hard embargo, in which Washington and its allies block all shipping into and out of North Korea and seek to paralyze its finances, risks confrontations that allies in Asia fear could quickly escalate into war. But restarting talks on the North’s terms would reward the defiance of its young leader, Kim Jong-un, with no guarantee that he will dismantle the nuclear program irrevocably.

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For more than seven years, President Obama has sought to find a middle ground, adopting a policy of gradually escalating sanctions that the White House once called “strategic patience.” But the test Friday — the North’s fifth and most powerful blast yet, perhaps with nearly twice the strength of its last one — eliminates any doubt that the approach has failed and that the North has mastered the basics of detonating a nuclear weapon.

Despite sanctions and technological backwardness, North Korea appears to have enjoyed progress in its missile program over the past decade, with experts warning that it is speeding toward a day when it will be able to threaten the US West Coast and perhaps the entire country.

“This is not a cry for negotiations,” said Victor Cha, who served in the administration of President George W. Bush and now is a North Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “This is very clearly a serious effort at amassing real nuclear capabilities that they can use to deter the US and others.”

Cha said the usual response from Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo — for another round of sanctions — was not likely to be any more successful at changing the North’s behavior than previous rounds. That means Obama’s successor will confront a nuclear and missile program far more advanced than the one that Obama began grappling with in 2009.

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Obama has refused to negotiate with the North unless it agrees first that the ultimate objective of any talks would be a Korean Peninsula without nuclear arms. But Kim has demonstrated, at least for now, that time is on his side. And as he gets closer to an ability to threaten the United States with a nuclear attack, and stakes the credibility of his government on it, it may be even more difficult to persuade him to give up the program.

In a statement Friday, Obama condemned the North’s test and said it “follows an unprecedented campaign of ballistic missile launches, which North Korea claims are intended to serve as delivery vehicles intended to target the United States and our allies.”

“To be clear, the United States does not, and never will, accept North Korea as a nuclear state,” he said.

Many experts who have dealt with North Korea say the United States may have no choice but to do so.

“It’s too late on the nuclear weapons program — that is not going to be reversed,” William Perry, the defense secretary under President Clinton during the 1994 nuclear crisis with North Korea, said in August at a presentation in Kent, Conn. The only choice now, he argued, is to focus on limiting the missile program.

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Yet the latest effort to do that, an agreement between the United States and South Korea to deploy an advanced missile defense system in the South, has inflamed China, which argues the system is also aimed at its weapons. While US officials deny that, the issue has divided Washington and Beijing so sharply that it will be even more difficult now for them to come up with a joint strategy for dealing with the North.

In a recent paper, two researchers concluded sanctions so far “have had the net effect of actually improving” North Korea’s procurement capabilities for its weapons program. To evade sanctions, the North’s state-run trading companies opened offices in China, hired more capable Chinese middlemen, and paid higher fees to employ more sophisticated brokers, according to Jim Walsh and John Park, scholars at MIT and Harvard.

The sanctions, Cha noted, “are supposed to inflict enough pain so the regime comes back to the negotiation table, and that’s clearly not working; or it’s supposed to collapse the regime until it starves, and that’s not working either.”