North Korea’s launch Sunday of what it described as a rocket carrying an Earth observation satellite — but widely deemed a long-range ballistic missile test in disguise — came just as the international community struggled to come up with strong action against a nuclear weapons test by the reclusive regime just last month. Relevant parties need to come to grips with why past international actions, including economic sanctions under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council, have failed to stop Pyongyang’s repeated missile and nuclear weapons tests, and reconsider what actions to take.
It is apparent that the missile launch and the nuclear weapons test — which Pyongyang said was its first successful explosion of a hydrogen bomb, a claim widely doubted — is aimed at burnishing the image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ahead of the ruling Workers’ Party scheduled to be held in May for the first time in 36 years. The Kim regime must realize that such provocative acts only serve to deepen the country’s international isolation — and that it is the North Korean people who ultimately stand to suffer.
The international community also needs to take seriously the fact that its responses to North Korea’s repeated provocations — a series of U.N.-led economic sanctions — have not been effective in curtailing the regime’s military ambitions. That Pyongyang has been able to continue its missile and nuclear weapons programs — spending vast resources on them over an extended period of time — is proof that efforts to contain the regime through economic sanctions have not worked as intended. Pyongyang repeats provocative acts because it is betting that the international community will condemn them but won’t be able to take more effective action.
The international community was united in its criticism of North Korea when it carried out the underground nuclear test — its fourth since 2006 and the second since Kim became the country’s supreme leader in 2012 — on Jan. 6. But U.N. talks for additional sanctions against Pyongyang have since made little headway, chiefly due to differences between the United States and China. The U.S. has reportedly called for tougher sanctions, including a ban on shipment of crude oil from China to North Korea. China, Pyongyang’s last major ally and longtime benefactor, is said to be wary of taking strong actions, such as an effective trade embargo, that might lead to a collapse of the Kim regime as it could unleash a refugee crisis along its border with the reclusive state and might create a unified Korea allied with the U.S.
Chinese customs data show that North Korea’s economy remains dependent on China. Trade between the two countries in 2015 fell 13.7 percent from the previous year to $5.51 billion — but it was still more than double the level of 2009. The Chinese figures show there was no crude oil exports to North Korea for the second year in a row, but it is thought that oil continues to be supplied to the reclusive state without being recorded in the official statistics.
China’s relations with North Korea have been strained in recent years as Pyongyang continued its the missile and nuclear weapons development despite the international condemnation and as Beijing sought closer relations with South Korea. The latest rocket launch — of which an alert was given to the International Maritime Organization earlier this month just as China dispatched a senior official to Pyongyang to discuss last month’s nuclear test — may be yet another signal of the Kim regime’s frustration with Beijing and its refusal to bend to pressure from even its traditional ally. China should realize that it has a major role to play in halting North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs. It needs to know that repeated assertions of regret will not sway Kim’s regime, which is well aware that the gap between the U.S. and China effectively stifles strong international responses to its acts.
Likewise, the U.S. should look back on its own actions — or lack thereof — to resolve the stalemate. While it is aware that Pyongyang thinks of its nuclear and missile developments as a deterrence against U.S. military power, Washington has mainly urged China to step up pressure on North Korea and for years has shunned any direct engagement with Pyongyang itself. It is clear that international sanctions have done little to curtail Pyongyang’s ambitions, while security threats from North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have expanded — albeit to unverified levels — through its repeated tests and launches. All countries involved, in particular China and the U.S., need to serious consider what has been lacking in their approaches toward North Korea.