Will North Korea's provocative nuclear test backfire?

Pyongyang infuriated the U.S. and United Nations, and humiliated its only friend and supporter, China

An effigy of North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un is on display during a protest a day after the country conducted its third nuclear test on Feb. 12.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)

North Korea's nuclear test this week will bring about little to no good. Depending on what international monitors confirm about the test — Was the warhead plutonium-based or, worse, fueled by enriched uranium? Was it smaller than previous warheads, and thus closer to fitting atop a ballistic missile? — Pyongyang could be significantly closer to developing a workable nuke able to reach Japan, or its obvious end goal, the U.S. If there's a silver lining to the isolated communist regime's (figurative) mushroom cloud, it's that, as President Obama said Tuesday, such "provocations... will only isolate them further as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats."

The United Nations Security Council unanimously "strongly condemned" the "grave violations" of U.N. resolutions, and vowed to "begin work immediately on appropriate measures," presumably new sanctions. While the Security Council is hashing out the type and scope of the sanctions, "all eyes will be on China to see how far Beijing, increasingly exasperated with its troublesome ally and neighbor, is willing to go to punish the North for its actions," says Howard LaFranchi at The Christian Science Monitor. The date of the test, right before Obama's State of the Union address, suggests that leader Kim Jong Un is trying to send a message to the U.S.

But others say the timing heightens other risks for the North. That the test was carried out while South Korea holds the month-long revolving presidency of the UN Security Council virtually guaranteed a swift international response.... In addition, China is likely to consider it an affront that Pyongyang carried out the test during its New Year holiday, says Victor Cha, who holds the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "In the world of diplomacy, little things do matter, and conducting the test during the Chinese New Year will be viewed by Beijing as extremely insulting." [Christian Science Monitor]

China has so far offered only a mild rebuke to its client state, summoning the North Korean ambassador to convey that it is "strongly dissatisfied and resolutely opposed" to the nuclear test. But China's stalwart support for Pyongyang "may — and we stress may — be starting to change," says The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. "In the last week, the state-run Chinese media have become notably more critical of Pyongyang," and China's social media has been even more openly critical of Beijing's muted response.

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We've been skeptical that Beijing will give up its historical and strategic attachments to North Korea. But it's worth one last attempt to convince China's leaders that it is in their own interest to roll back the North's nuclear program. They have by far the most leverage if they choose to use it by, say, cutting off fuel supplies. At the same time, the U.S. and its allies must be prepared to move by themselves, which means applying all the tools at their disposal, even if not sanctioned by the U.N.... The goal should be depriving the regime of resources so that it faces a choice of giving up the bomb or falling. [Wall Street Journal]

A pretty broad consensus seems to exist about what the next step should be: "Hit Kim Jong Un where it hurts: His wallet," as Korea experts Sung-Yoon Lee and Joshua Stanton put it succinctly in The Washington Post. "Washington and Seoul should target Pyongyang's greatest points of vulnerability: the Kim regime's overdependence on its 'palace economy,'" the "international network of shadowy officials, banks and front companies sustains the North's ruling clan, military, and internal security forces," even while the rest of the country starves.

A good start would be putting in place something like scrapped 2007 U.S. sanctions against Macau-based Banco Delta Asia, which froze $25 million in laundered North Korean assets, says former State Department official P.J. Crowley at BBC News. "That step got Pyongyang's undivided attention."

Throwing some sand into the gears of the Kim family business does not solve the larger problem, but at least it might arrest Pyongyang's swagger. It remains to be seen whether Pyongyang's provocative course is the new normal or just part of the learning process for a young and untested leader. Either way, if Kim Jong-un wants to play with the grown-ups, he has to understand there are real costs for going beyond the accepted boundaries. [BBC]

That approach is endorsed not just by Crowley and the Korea experts Lee and Stanton, but also by the editorial pages of both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. It remains to be seen if this nuclear test was enough to convince the U.S. — or better yet, China — to make life uncomfortable for Kim and his ruling allies. But at the very least, we'll have a better sense of what we're up against from Pyongyang, says The Associated Press' Eric Talmadge. The underground explosion may signal a big advance for North Korea's nuclear program or not, but it will almost certainly yield "key clues the secretive nation might have hoped to hide about how close, or how far away, it is from fielding a nuclear weapon capable of striking the United States or its allies."

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.