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    UN Security Council votes in favor of fresh sanctions against North Korea following sixth nuclear test


    Asia: North Korea


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    Asia: North Korea

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    Special Report: Belligerence, brinkmanship, and threatening war rhetoric between United States and North Korea; is nuclear war imminent? 




    At the start of 2017, North Korea warned that it could attack enemies  “at any time” and blamed the United States for the development of its missile program. This announcement came on the heels of the New Year’s message of North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, in which he said that his country was close to testing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the mainland of the United States. Then, in February 2017, ahead of a meeting between the leaders of the United States and China,  North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan.  


    In the background of this development, United States President Donald Trump warned that the United States would act alone against North Korea if China failed to  do so. But Trump credited Chinese President Xi Jinping with working to resolve the threat emanating from Pyongyang following a meeting with  the Chinese leader. China was soon offering North Korea an incentive to back off from its nuclear activities and ambitions  by promising its protection.  However, North Korea appeared undeterred, carried out a missile launch, and promised to "ruthlessly ravage" the United States if it attacked North Korea. Building on that threat,  North Korea  soon warned of a nuclear attack on the United States in response to any aggression from that country, as well as regular missile testing in defiance of international law.  To that end, another ballistic missile was fired and although it ended in failure, it nonetheless demonstrated North Korea's continued defiance.  


    In May 2017, North Korea successfully test fired a new strategic ballistic missile named Hwasong-12 and indicated some significant advances in North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile technology.  Of note was North Korea's technical advances in the realms of engine performance and  mastery of re-entry -- two key areas that could aid North Korea in successfully attacking the United States with a missile  mounted with a nuclear warhead. For his part, United States President Donald Trump warned of a "major, major conflict with North Korea" while United States lawmakers were concerned about a lack of a clear  strategy for dealing with North Korea.   

    As May 2017 came to an end, North Korea had fired a short range  Scud-class ballistic missile, prompting protest from Japan and warnings of consequences.  


    At the start of July 2017, North Korea carried out an apparent  two-stage intercontinental ballistic missile (ICMB) test.  The test was a wake up call to the United states that North Korean missiles could hit Hawaii and Alaska, and perhaps even the American mainland.  The only question was whether or not North Korea had actually developed the technology to mount miniaturized nuclear warheads on long-range missiles and if such devices could withstand re-entry.  A second ICBM test with significant range  by North Korea at the end of July 2017  underlined the clear and president danger to global security posed by that country, as well as the increasing threat to the American mainland.  


    In August 2017,  the United Nations imposed harsh new sanctions on North Korea  for its  latest missile aggression in violation of international law.  


    These measures yielded no measurable constraining effect on North Korea, which at the start of September 2017 carried out its sixth nuclear test -- this time believed to be a hydrogen bomb capable of destroying an entire city. According to Pyongyang, the hydrogen bomb was capable of fitting on an intercontinental ballistic missile and reaching the mainland United States.  Pyongyany further claimed "perfect success" in this hydrogen bomb test endeavor.


    Note:  It should be noted that North Korea holds the dubious distinction of being the only country to have performed a nuclear test in the 21st century


    North Korea carries out sixth nuclear test; claims it has tested a hydrogen bomb --


    At the start of September 2017, North Korea carried out its sixth nuclear test in flagrant defiance of international law.  According to Pyongyang, it tested  a hydrogen bomb capable of fitting on an intercontinental ballistic missile and reaching the mainland United States.  Indeed, North Korea claimed "perfect success" in this hydrogen bomb test endeavor -- the latest in a string of provocative and dangerous nuclear acts starting less than a dozen years earlier.  


    The detonated bomb caused an artificial earthquake, measuring approximately 6 in magnitude, according to the South Korean military, which cited seismic activity detected at a North Korean nuclear test site.  The increased yield in this September 2017 test as compared with a nuclear test a year ago would suggest that this was North Korea's most powerful nuclear experiment to date.  To be sure, a thermonuclear device such as a hydrogen bomb would certainly surpass the destructive power of the atomic bombs that destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. 


    Across the border in South Korea, all military troops were placed on high alert while a National Security Council meeting was convened.  In Japan, the government of that country confirmed that a nuclear test had taken place and that seismic waves had been detected.   Given Japan's intimate memory of decimation via nuclear attack, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe characterized North Korea's latest nuclear moves as “absolutely unacceptable.”


    Hours after the reports of the nuclear test surfaced internationally, North Korea officially announced not only that it had carried out a nuclear test, but that it had successfully developed a hydrogen bomb that could be loaded onto an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).  Moreover, North Korea was telegraphing that its hydrogen bomb would be attached to a missile capable of striking the mainland United States.


    United States President Donald Trump reacted to this act of North Korean provocation by making clear that he would not foreclose a retaliatory strike.  When he was asked if he was planning to attack North Korea, Trump responded to reporters saying, “We’ll see."  


    Then, instead of consolidating long standing alliances in east Asia, Trump instead blasted South Korea for a policy of appeasement with the North.  Via the social media outlet, Twitter, Trump declared: “South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!”   


    It should be noted that Trump has also floated the idea of backing out from a free trade deal with South Korea.  But at a time when close cooperative ties with allies in the region would be needed, such a move could prove both alienating and detrimental.


    As a consequence,  Defense Secretary James Mattis was forced to issue reassurances to Seoul and the world that “the commitments among the allies are ironclad.”  Standing next to General Joseph Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mattis said, “Any threat to the United States or its territories, including Guam, or our allies will be met with a massive military response —- a response both effective and overwhelming.”  Striking a measured but resolute tone, Mattis added, “We are not looking for the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea, but as I said, we have many options to do so.”


    For his part, South Korean President Moon Jae-in sidestepped the barb and instead said that his country was focused on achieving the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, in coordination with “our allies.”  


    That goal of peaceful denuclearization was also reiterated by United Nations Security Council veto-wielding members, China and Russia.  Indeed, both Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin recapitulated their shared objective of the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. However, it was unclear if such an objective was even possible, given North Korea's clear and demonstrable desire to establish itself as a nuclear power.


    As noted by Stanford professor, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), and former United States Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, "Declaring denuclearization as the goal without an effective strategy for achieving this outcome is not a policy, just a hope. We need a short-term strategy for freezing the North Korean nuclear program now to have any chance of achieving denuclearization in the future."  That short-term strategy, according to McFaul,  would rely on coercive diplomacy by a unified international community. But such a strategy would require cooperation with friends, allies, and powerful actors, such as China and Russia, which also sit on the United Nations Security Council.  


    Thus, Trump's suggestion that the United States cut off trade with any country doing business with North Korea was being interpreted by many as counter-productive. First, it  would be economically devastating domestically by driving up prices on consumer goods, and second, t would also devastate economies across the world. Third, and more crucially to the point of dealing with the east Asian nuclear crisis, it was unlikely to sway China to shift its tactics in regard to North Korea.


    Trade threats aside, Trump also appeared to use a shaming tactic to pressure China to constrain North Korea.  He said via Twitter that North Korea had become "a great threat and embarrassment to China, which is trying to help but with little success.”  Again, this particular form of pressure was not expected to be persuasive with the Chinese. 


    In fact, it immediately appeared to have set China into an intransigent stance with the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Geng Shuang, chastising Trump for taking a position unfair to Beijing. At a news briefing, geng said, "What is definitely unacceptable to us is that on the one hand we work so hard to peacefully resolve this issue and on the other hand our interests are subject to sanctions and jeopardized. This is unfair."


    Meanwhile, there was some closing of the ranks between the United States and South Korea following a call between the two leaders of these countries.  Trump agreed "in principle" to dismiss the 1100 pound (500 kilogram)   warhead weight limit on South Korea's missiles.  As well, Trump offered "conceptual approval" for South Korea to buy billions of dollars worth  of weapons from the United States.  


    The next step in coordinated international action against North Korean nuclear aggression was expected to be at the United Nations Security Council.  There was general agreement from allied countries that strong and aggressive sanctions should be slapped on North Korea for its sixth nuclear test.  But there were also fresh avenues under consideration, such as the severing of North Korea's foreign currency income. 


    In the second week of September 2017,  something less than a harsh sanctions package emerged from the United Nations Security Council. It was unclear if threats from North Korea may have influenced the decision to "water down" the sanctions measures. As reported by Reuters News, the original proposal to include an oil embargo,  halt exports of textiles and subject North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un,  to financial and travel ban, was diluted somewhat.  Of note was the decision to exclude the financial and travel ban on Kim Jong-un and weaken the the oil and gas sanctions. 


    While this move was disappointing to hardliners, the fact of the matter was that there was no guarantee that further sanctions would function punitively to end the risk to global security posed by a nuclearized North Korea. This was a point emphasized by United Sttes President Donald Trump after the resolution from the United Nations Security Council entered the public sphere. Indeed, neither harsh bellicose rhetoric from the leader of the free world nor international sanctions have shown any sign of compelling North Korea to denuclearize.  Trump, as before, was telegraphing that much more drastic measures were likely needed to bring Norht Korea to heel,


    Worth noting was the fact that other options on the table were equally unpalatable and unlikely to be successful. Regime change or leader decapitation would present risky and unrealistic pathways, likely to provoke North Korea rather than end its aggression.  


    Meanwhile, the peace camp's notion that a resumption of multilateral talks could result in a breakthrough with North Korea seemed rather delusional.  South Korea's new leader,  Moon Jae-in, who had been elected partially on the basis of a "pro-dialogue" platform, was again advocating this approach irrespective of the reality that communication or "talks" were a means but not the end to the security crisis facing the world. 


    At the heart of the matter was the conviction held by North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, that his possession of nuclear weapons serves as a check on  threats to his regime.  In fact, on the heels of North Korea's sixth nuclear test came the news that Kim Jong-un was planning an ICBM launch.  Clearly, the North Korean regime was functioning in an unchecked manner, in flagrant violation of international law, and with all major global powers seemingly incapable of strategizing cooperatively on an effective solution. 


    Note:  It should be noted that North Korea holds the dubious distinction of being the only country to have performed a nuclear test in the 21st century.



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