North Korea’s latest nuclear weapons test last week, coming on the heels of repeated ballistic missile test-launches in recent months, appears to highlight two things — that Pyongyang is making progress in its nuclear and missile programs to a point in which they now present a real threat to regional security, and that repeated condemnations by major powers and tightened economic sanctions have effectively had no impact to stop the provocative acts by Kim Jong Un’s regime, which seems bent on winning international recognition as a nuclear power for its own survival.

As expected as in the wake of Pyongyang’s previous defiant acts, the United Nations Security Council lashed out against North Korea’s fifth nuclear test and said its members would begin talks for appropriate steps, presumably including additional sanctions. Officials of Japan, the United States and South Korea have agreed to seek the “strongest possible” measures to stop Pyongyang’s acts. China joined the international chorus of criticism but it’s not clear how far Beijing will go along in tightening the sanctions against Pyongyang. China, constantly under pressure to exert its influence to rein in Pyongyang as its sole diplomatic ally, is said to be increasingly frustrated with the behavior of North Korea but is hesitant to endorse actions that could result in regime change. The fact that North Korea fired ballistic missiles just as China was hosting the Group of 20 summit in Hangzhou earlier last week raises questions about the extent of Beijing’s influence over its ally.

The international community needs to make sure that its sanctions, including ones introduced in March as the toughest ever against North Korea as well as even harsher steps that will likely be discussed in the wake of the latest blast, are indeed without loopholes that would keep enabling Pyongyang to spend resources on its nuclear and missile programs. All the powers with stakes in East Asia should also consider other approaches, including diplomatic contacts, to stop North Korea from continuing to take actions that pose an increasing threat to regional security. The decade since North Korea’s first nuclear weapons test in 2006 shows that merely hoping that the isolated and reclusive regime will cave in under the weight of international sanctions won’t work.

Pyongyang has been accelerating its development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in response to tightening international pressures against the regime. While the first three nuclear blasts at its underground test site took place in intervals of three to four years, the fifth test on Friday was held just some eight months after the previous blast in January. Friday’s nuclear test came on the heels of 20 ballistic missile launches so far this year.

Pyongyang’s defiant acts earlier met with both condemnation and skepticism about its claims as to the technological advances in its weapons program. But whereas North Korea’s claim that it detonated a “hydrogen bomb” in the January test was greeted with widespread doubt, its assertion that Friday’s blast — the most powerful detected so far — was a successful test of nuclear warhead was taken internationally as a possible indication that North Korea has managed to miniaturize nuclear devices to an extent that would make it possible to carry them on ballistic missiles. Such a step, as Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said, places Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons technology at a stage for operational use. That, combined with the apparent progress in its ballistic missile program, including the test-firing in August of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) in the Sea of Japan, would pose a real threat.

An accurate assessment of North Korea’s weapons technology may be in the realm of defense experts. The question will be how the international community, including Japan, should respond. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is said to have ordered his administration to prepare stepping up Japan’s own sanctions — reportedly including expanding the targets of its measure to freeze the financial assets of individuals and organizations suspected of involvement in the nuclear and missile programs, as well as tightening control on the remittance of money from Japan to North Korea. Officials say Tokyo will be working with the U.S. and South Korea to seek tougher international sanctions while urging China to ensure its compliance with the already adopted measures.

Whatever new sanctions to be discussed and possibly adopted by the U.N. Security Council must be based on an assessment on how much the economic sanctions already imposed have been effective against the reclusive state, which has a largely closed economic structure, along with the check on how tightly they have been implemented — and efforts to plug the loopholes if they exist. The bottom line should be to cut off international funding for North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.

It is important for the international community to keep sending a united message that North Korea’s provocative acts are unacceptable. It will also be important to realize that such a message has essentially fallen on deaf ears and appeared to have fueled yet more defiant acts by Pyongyang. The latest nuclear weapons test shows that repeating the same approach will provide no guarantee against the North Korean threat.

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