WASHINGTON/SEOUL – U.S. presidential candidates and members of Congress demanded more sanctions on North Korea on Wednesday after its latest nuclear test, but major powers will likely be reluctant to take the tough steps necessary to force Pyongyang to abandon its weapons program, former U.S. officials and analysts said.
North Korea is already under a wide array of international sanctions, and diplomats said U.N. Security Council members were expected to discuss the possibility of adding to these in coming days. But the steps taken so far stop short of the all-out economic offensive that forced Iran to the nuclear negotiating table.
Asia analysts said China would likely support more U.N. sanctions, even though it is North Korea’s neighbor and main ally, but within limits, for fear of destabilizing what has long been a physical buffer between it and U.S.-backed South Korea.
Washington, too, has been cautious. While U.S. sanctions have aggressively targeted Pyongyang’s military and weapons program, the United States has not imposed crippling economic sanctions, in part because these would hit Chinese firms and banks that do the vast bulk of business with North Korea, former U.S. officials said.
“We are deeply interlinked and if you hold an economic gun to China’s head, you are holding it to your own head,” said Joseph DeThomas, a former U.S. diplomat who worked on sanctions on North Korea and Iran, referring to the close economic relations between the world’s two largest economies.
Republican front-runner Donald Trump urged China to rein in its ally or face trade repercussions, while his main Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, said the United States should tighten sanctions on North Korea and called on Beijing to be more assertive in deterring Pyongyang’s “irresponsible actions.”
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the United States would work with the international community on an “appropriate response” to Pyongyang. He said this would be “measured, deliberate, tough, clear and concise.”
DeThomas, the former diplomat, said China could exert more pressure on North Korea by restricting energy supplies and investment in areas such as minerals and mining. It could also restrict informal border trade, or even take a different approach to North Korean refugees — allowing them in rather than shutting them out.
In 2013 China, which has often played as moderating influence on North Korea, cut crude oil exports to North Korea as an apparent punishment for an earlier nuclear test.
But DeThomas said any discussions on sanctions at the United Nations would go nowhere close to the steps necessary to effect change in North Korea.
“From China’s perspective, North Korean nuclear weapons are a bad thing, but the collapse of the North Korean regime would be worse thing,” DeThomas said.
Republican leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives are considering a vote as soon as next week on long-delayed legislation to impose stiffer punishments on foreign companies doing business with Pyongyang, U.S. congressional sources said on Wednesday.
The bill would target banks facilitating North Korea’s nuclear program and authorize freezing of U.S. assets of those directly linked to illicit North Korean activities. It would also penalize those involved in business providing North Korea with hard currency.
A Republican congressional aide said U.S. sanctions could go even further by freezing the assets of North Korean leaders as they had targeted leaders in Belarus, Zimbabwe and Russia, or focus on money laundering as they had done in Myanmar and Iran.
Jeff Bader, Obama’s top Asia adviser during his first term, said the Obama administration had discussed in the past going after the assets of North Korean leaders. But tracking down their finances would be no easy task, said Bader, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank.
Peter Harrell, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for counterthreat finance and sanctions, said blockading major sectors of North Korea’s economy, like textiles, could have an impact and convince Chinese firms to back away from North Korea trade. But he said the policy could backfire if it alienated Beijing or made North Korea more aggressive.
Unlike in the case of Iran, the United States has not sought to strangle regular trade between North Korea and the international community, with threats to blacklist any company that does business in the country.
To cut Tehran off from international trade, Washington used “secondary sanctions” that threatened to expel from the financial system any company, anywhere in the world, that purchased oil from Iran. But secondary sanctions against Pyongyang have so far remained off the table.
Adam Smith, a former senior adviser at the U.S. Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces U.S. sanctions, said even the toughest steps might not change North Korea’s behavior, given its small, isolated economy, which unlike Iran’s had few international connections.
“It’s not clear to me that if they maxed out sanctions and made it like Iran that it would make any policy difference,” he said.
Although weapons experts voiced doubts the device North Korea tested was as advanced as the isolated nation claimed.
The underground explosion shook the earth so hard that it registered as a seismic event with U.S. earthquake monitors. It put pressure on China to rein in neighboring North Korea.
The U.N. Security Council said it would begin working immediately on significant new measures in response to North Korea, a threat diplomats said could mean an expansion of sanctions.
North Korea has been under Security Council sanctions since it first tested an atomic device in 2006. After a nuclear test in 2013, the Security Council took about three weeks to agree a resolution that tightened financial restrictions and cracked down on Pyongyang’s attempts to ship and receive banned cargo.
In the United States, Republican presidential candidates seized on the test to accuse President Barack Obama of running a “feckless” foreign policy that enabled North Korea to bolster its nuclear arms capabilities.
U.S. congressional sources said Republican leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives were considering a vote as soon as next week to broaden sanctions against North Korea by imposing stiffer punishments on foreign companies doing business with Pyongyang.
While North Korea has a long history of voicing bellicose rhetoric against the United States and its Asian allies without acting on it, the assertion by Pyongyang on Wednesday that it had tested a hydrogen device, much more powerful than an atomic bomb, came as a surprise.
North Korea also said it was capable of miniaturizing the H-bomb, in theory allowing it to be placed on a missile and potentially posing a new threat to the U.S. West Coast, South Korea and Japan.
The U.S. State Department confirmed North Korea had conducted a nuclear test but the Obama administration disputed the hydrogen bomb claim.
“The initial analysis is not consistent with the claim the regime has made of a successful hydrogen bomb test,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters. He said any nuclear test would be a “flagrant violation” of Security Council resolutions.
The explosion drew criticism, including from China and Russia. Beijing, the North’s main economic and Wednesday’s nuclear test took place two days ahead of what is believed to be North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s birthday.
“Let the world look up to the strong, self-reliant nuclear-armed state,” Kim wrote in what North Korean state TV displayed as a handwritten note.
North Korea called the device the “H-bomb of justice.”
While the Kim government boasts of its military might to project strength globally, it also plays up the need to defend itself from external threats as a way to maintain control domestically.
It will likely take several days to determine more precisely what kind of nuclear device Pyongyang set off as a variety of sensors, including “sniffer planes,” collect evidence.
Hydrogen bombs pack an explosion that can be more powerful than an atomic bomb as it uses a two-step process of fission and fusion that releases substantially more energy.
A U.S. government source said the United States believes North Korea had set off the latest in a series of tests of old-fashioned atomic bombs of which it has dozens.
The source said the size of the latest explosion was roughly consistent with previous tests believed to have been conducted with A-bombs rather than H-bombs. The latest test occurred in the same geographical location, with the same geological profile, as earlier tests.
The United States had been anticipating a North Korean nuclear test for some time, as intelligence surveillance produced indications of possible preparations, including evidence of new excavations of underground tunnels at the site.
The USGS reported a 5.1 magnitude seismic event that South Korea said was 49 km (30 miles) from the Punggye-ri site where the North has conducted nuclear tests in the past.
South Korean intelligence officials and several analysts also questioned whether Wednesday’s explosion was a test of a full-fledged hydrogen device, pointing to its having been roughly as powerful as North Korea’s last atomic test.
Stocks across the world fell for a fifth consecutive day as the North Korea tension added to a growing list of geopolitical worries and China fueled fears about its economy by allowing the yuan to weaken further.
The Republicans added North Korea to a list of what they assert are Obama’s foreign policy failures, including Syria’s civil war, the rise of Islamic State and the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program.
They also blamed his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party front-runner in the race for the November presidential election.
Asked about North Korea, Republican White House hopeful Donald Trump told CNN that “China should solve that problem” or face trade retaliation from the United States. “South Korea should pay us and pay us very substantially for protecting them,” he said.
Clinton condemned North Korea’s action as a “dangerous and provocative act” and said the United States should respond with more sanctions and stronger missile defenses.
North Korea has long coveted diplomatic recognition from Washington, but sees its nuclear deterrent as crucial to ensuring the survival of its third-generation dictatorship.
The North’s state news agency said Pyongyang would act as a responsible nuclear state and vowed not to use its nuclear weapons unless its sovereignty was infringed.
Joe Cirincione, a nuclear expert who is president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security organization, said North Korea may have mixed a hydrogen isotope in a normal atomic fission bomb.
“Because it is, in fact, hydrogen, they could claim it is a hydrogen bomb,” he said. “But it is not a true fusion bomb capable of the massive multimegaton yields these bombs produce.”