While North Korea’s claim that it successfully tested a “two-stage thermonuclear weapon” capable of being carried by an intercontinental ballistic missile on Sunday cannot be verified, its latest nuclear test shows once again that the threat posed by its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs is increasing as time passes and the international community remains unable to take effective steps to halt the Kim regime’s dangerous provocations. This must change.
Pressure on North Korea must be increased and efforts made to close the loopholes that have enabled Pyongyang to mitigate the impact of such efforts and continue its weapons development programs. At the same time, diplomatic efforts directly involving North Korea should be explored to ensure that the worst-case scenario of a military conflict — which would be too costly for countries in the region including Japan — can be averted.
North Korea’s claim that it has succeeded in building a miniaturized hydrogen bomb that can be attached to an ICBM has been met with skepticism. But the power of the blast on Sunday, as estimated by the size of temblors caused by the explosion and observed by authorities outside the country, was reportedly several times larger than the last nuclear test conducted by Pyongyang nearly a year ago — and the largest since the regime carried out its first nuclear test in 2006. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the possibility that it was indeed a hydrogen bomb could not be ruled out.
North Korea, meanwhile, has steadily continued to upgrade and diversified its ballistic missile technology, which would be used to deliver its nuclear bombs. In July, Pyongyang twice test-fired what was deemed its first ICBM, the Hwasong-14, which can likely reach the United States mainland. After threatening to fire intermediate-range missiles into the sea off the U.S. territory of Guam, North Korea last week fired such a missile over Hokkaido — a reminder that Japan is well within the range of its ballistic missiles.
North Korea has defied international pressure, including United Nations Security Council resolutions and economic sanctions, in the pursuit of its nuclear and missile programs. New resolutions and additional — and likely tougher — sanctions will be mulled in the wake of the latest nuclear weapons test. But past experience suggests that a UNSC resolution and sanctions will have a limited effect on Pyongyang’s actions.
It is believed that Kim’s regime, by racheting up the threat of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, is aiming to force the United States to engage in dialogue and ultimately recognize Pyongyang’s status as a nuclear power, thereby ensuring its survival. On the other hand, the U.S. and the rest of the international community see dialogue with North Korea as a means to denuclearize the regime. Such a gap — and the grave security threat that North Korea as a nuclear weapons power poses to East Asia — are said to stand in the way of possible talks to resolve the crisis.
The impasse over what the aim of dialogue should be will not be easily resolved — especially between North Korea and the U.S. But in the meantime, North Korea will continue to hone its ballistic missiles and nuclear arms capabilities, raising the threat they pose and the stakes in a possible military clash. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump says it has “many military options” to counter the threat posed by North Korea. There is no guarantee, however, that a military solution to the crisis would not be accompanied by immense damage to neighboring countries such as South Korea and Japan.
Diplomatic efforts will ultimately be the only way to avert such a worst-case scenario. The question of whether North Korea should or should not be recognized as a nuclear weapons power — if that is a major obstacle to even entering any talk with Pyongyang — may be irrelevant given that it already possesses nuclear arms and that countries effectively deal with the North as a nuclear power. The denuclearization of North Korea must be pursued, but what is urgently needed is a diplomatic framework that aims to stop Pyongyang from moving even further with its nuclear and missile development.
China and Russia, which have often been accused of providing the loopholes that allow North Korea to escape the brunt of international sanctions, should be called upon to play meaningful roles in building such a framework. Trump has tweeted that the U.S. will consider “stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea.” Whether or not such a step is feasible, the Trump administration will likely push Moscow and Beijing to agree to tougher sanctions on Pyongyang at the U.N. Security Council. Both China and Russia should accept their responsibility to help rein in North Korea and contribute to a diplomatic solution to the crisis.