Responding to North Korea


Last Friday, South Korea resumed its high-decibel loudspeaker propaganda attack against North Korea, which two days earlier had tested a nuclear weapon in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. As the hermit nation led by Kim Jong Un suffered the ear-popping onslaught of K-pop songs and weather reports, talks were underway elsewhere on how to respond to North Korea’s fourth nuclear test since 2006.

The Security Council immediately condemned the test as “a clear threat to international peace.” But what response will reduce or eliminate the threat? The Security Council, never a body that acts speedily, promises more sanctions. The key, however, lies with the United States — the lone superpower — and China, North Korea’s neighbor and patron. A day after the nuclear blast, Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Chinese counterpart and told him, in Kerry’s words, “We cannot continue business as usual.”

But it remains to be seen whether China’s desire to “really step on North Korean necks,” as a former U.S. negotiator told NPR, will outweigh its fear of the collapse of the buffer between it and U.S.-backed South Korea.

North Korea’s flagrant violation of international norms could bring the United States, China, Japan and South Korea — where 28,000 U.S. troops are stationed — closer to a common response. There is room to extend international sanctions. China could cut energy supplies to Pyongyang, something it has done in the past. Until now, the United States has targeted North Korea’s military and weapons programs and has not tried to cut off trade with Pyongyang, as it has with Iran. That could start to change. According to recent reports, the House of Representatives is likely to consider legislation that would stiffen fines on foreign companies doing business with Pyongyang, and there are those who are suggesting that an international effort might also be considered.

But North Korea has not responded to carrots or sticks in the past. It remains insular and suspicious, with its small economy isolated. International pressures could lead to compliance or to further defiance.

When it comes right down to it, North Korea may not want to part with its de facto membership of the nuclear club under any circumstances. Anyone advocating action beyond loud pop music must bear that in mind.

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