Tensions escalate after North Korean nuclear test
The Obama administration vowed this week to press the United Nations for the “strongest possible” sanctions against North Korea, after Pyongyang conducted its fifth and most powerful test yet of a nuclear weapon. In the days after Kim Jong Un’s regime successfully detonated a nuclear warhead underground, triggering a magnitude-5.3 seismic event, the United States sent two nuclear-capable supersonic bombers streaking over U.S. ally South Korea— a dramatic show of force intended to rattle Pyongyang and soothe anxious nerves in Seoul. Analysts estimated the warhead’s yield as equivalent to 10 kilotons of TNT, compared with the 15-kiloton atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. North Korean defense officials said the warhead was designed “to be mounted on strategic ballistic rockets,” stoking fears that the notoriously erratic Kim could soon be capable of nuclear missile strikes against South Korea and Japan. “Left unchecked,” says nuclear expert Siegfried Hecker, “Pyongyang will likely develop the capability to reach the continental U.S. with a nuclear-tipped missile in a decade or so.”
President Obama said Pyongyang’s test was “a grave threat” to global security and vowed that the United States “does not, and never will, accept North Korea as a nuclear state.” The degree to which North Korea is now punished depends in part on China, North Korea’s main trading partner. Beijing is often at odds with Washington over regional security issues but in March backed sanctions to undermine Pyongyang’s weapons financing.
What the columnists said
“Obama deserves credit” for convincing the U.N. to adopt its “most stringent sanctions yet on North Korea,” said Max Boot in CommentaryMagazine.com. Problem is, the sanctions “aren’t really being enforced.” The stumbling block is China, which won’t risk destabilizing Kim’s regime. But we can get tougher on Beijing by imposing “secondary sanctions” on Chinese firms dealing with North Korea, pressuring them to choke off the cash flow that provides Kim and his cronies “with luxury items while their people starve.”
“North Korea is a textbook example of the sort of country where sanctions are just not effective,” said Joshua Keating in Slate.com. They work best when regimes “want to be part of the international community”—the case with apartheid South Africa and, more recently, Iran. But a “totalitarian personality cult whose identity is based largely on defiance of the Western world” isn’t likely to cave to such punishments.
Still, there are signs “North Korea is interested in dialogue,” said Joel Wit in The New York Times. In July, Pyongyang indicated Kim might support denuclearization talks, perhaps in a bid to improve his country’s disastrous economy. “No one is naïve enough to take these statements at face value”; only through direct talks can we be sure Kim is sincere. That’s a task for the next president, who will have to act fast: Any window to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions “may not stay open for long.”