April 06, 2020


The North Korean regime achieved its goal of getting attention and validation by presumably testing a nuclear device Monday. The difficult task now for other countries, especially members of the United Nation’s Security Council, which unanimously condemned the presumed test, is to use Pyongyang’s attention seeking as a way to encourage the regime to change its direction.

Early Monday, the official Korean Central News Agency reported that Pyongyang successfully detonated an underground nuclear test explosion. If confirmed, it would be the country’s first nuclear weapons test.

One of the most stinging condemnations came from China, which until now had been limited in its criticism of North Korea and its leader Kim Jong Il. “The Chinese side strongly demands the North Korean side to abide by its pledges on de-nuclearization and to stop any action that would worsen the situation,” the country’s Foreign Ministry said. China has long favored negotiations with North Korea and is leery of strong sanctions. It is likely to press the Security Council for more time to develop a response, rather than the quick action favored by the United States and some other countries.

North Korea relies on China for all of its oil and food assistance. Sanctions that slowed or stopped the flow of oil from China would worsen the already bad economic situation in North Korea, which could over time weaken support for the ruling regime. Further weakening the North Korean economy, however, is of concern to China because the flow of refugees across the border could dramatically increase if food and other essentials become even harder to come by in North Korea. This is also why South Korea had previously tempered its criticism of Pyongyang.

Work on North Korea’s nuclear reactor was frozen under a 1994 agreement with the United States and in 2000 the countries were close to an agreement to limit the number of North Korean missiles. Further negotiations broke down when the Bush administration insisted on complete dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program before any discussion of economic aid or normalization. The hard-liners in Pyongyang responded by boasting about their nuclear weapons progress.

President Bush then included North Korea in the “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq, and Pyongyang responded by calling President Bush names. Since then, efforts at negotiation have failed.

A Security Council resolution adopted last July, after a series of North Korean missile launches, imposed limited sanctions on North Korea and demanded that the country rejoin international nuclear talks. Pyongyang immediately rejected the plea.

Security Council members are now working on a response, beyond their condemnation, of the nuclear test. There are few viable options. Sanctions would have negative consequences for North Korea’s neighbors. A military response would be worse.

A resumption of dialogue is a long shot, but it allows concerns over the nuclear test to cool before looking for a long-term solution. Making demands of and threatening North Korea is not the answer.

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