Ed in the News
North Korea Nuclear Test Puts Pressure on U.S.
North Korea Nuclear Test Puts Pressure on U.S.
Washington assesses options for acting on own in face of China’s apparent reluctance to rein in ally
Calls for punitive action echoed around the world after North Korea’s nuclear test on Friday, but the narrow scope for international cooperation against Pyongyang is putting pressure on Washington to act on its own.
South Korea’s president said she would seek stronger sanctions through the United Nations Security Council, and the top U.S. and Russian diplomats called for discussions about a course of action
But whether the Security Council can act depends heavily on China—North Korea’s ally and main trading partner—which has increasingly sparred with Washington over regional security issues, including tensions in the South China Sea and on the Korean Peninsula.
In the face of growing reluctance from China to intervene, two options emerged for a U.S. response: Pressure Beijing by activating U.S. sanctions authority to penalize Chinese firms that do business with North Korea; and accelerating the installation of a sophisticated missile-defense system in South Korea, a deployment that represents a major irritant in the Washington-Beijing relationship.
The latest nuclear test was seen as a marked advance by North Korea. The blast was a larger detonation than the previous four, experts said, coming as Pyongyang this year has continued refining its ballistic-missile program, mobile-launching capabilities and warhead-miniaturization technology.
While not considered capable of launching a warhead across the world to reach the U.S., North Korea is seen as steadily moving toward that goal.
In Washington, officials didn’t corroborate reports that Friday’s nuclear test marked North Korea’s most powerful detonation to date. The U.S. Air Force is sending a WC-135 tanker—a so-called sniffer—to the area near the explosion to collect atmospheric samples and determine more about the nature of the explosion. The plane should arrive in the next few days, defense officials said. “It will determine what type of nuclear explosion it is,” said one defense official.
The U.N. Security Council met in emergency session to consider the North Korean nuclear test, which Secretary General Ban Ki-moon denounced as another “brazen breach” of Security Council resolutions that ban the country from conducting nuclear tests.
However, in an indication of sagging U.S.-Chinese relations, the American defense secretary, Ash Carter, heaped responsibility for North Korea’s misbehavior on Beijing.
“I’d single out China. It’s China’s responsibility,” Mr. Carter said at a news conference during an official visit to Norway. “China shares important responsibility for this development and has an important responsibility to reverse it. It’s important that it use its location, its history and its influence to further the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and not the direction things have been going.”
Earlier this year, following a fourth North Korean nuclear test in January, the U.S. and China jointly advanced a U.N. Security Council resolution imposing an unusually tough regimen of sanctions against Pyongyang, including cutoffs of aviation fuel and mandatory cargo inspections.
The U.S.-China partnership on North Korea then appeared to sour after Washington struck a deal with South Korea in July to install an advanced missile-defense system, known as a terminal high-altitude area defense system, or THAAD, by the end of next year.
U.S. and Chinese officials have clashed over the planned deployment, last discussing their differences during President Barack Obama’s trip to China last week for the summit of the Group of 20 leaders.
“We cannot have a situation where we’re unable to defend either ourselves or our treaty allies against increasingly provocative behavior and escalating capabilities by the North Koreans,” Mr. Obama said he told Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“And I indicated to him that if the THAAD bothered him, particularly since it has no purpose other than defensive and does not change the strategic balance between the United States and China, that they need to work with us more effectively to change Pyongyang’s behavior,” the president added.
The missile-defense deal with South Korea calls for the installation of the THAAD system by the end of next year. However, U.S. officials said Friday the delivery and activation of the system could be moved forward.
"THAAD is an inherently rapid deployable capability,” said Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
China on Friday condemned North Korea’s nuclear test, with its Foreign Ministry urging Pyongyang to “honor its commitment to denuclearization, comply with relevant [U.N.] Security Council resolutions and stop taking any action to worsen the situation.”
Despite the U.S.-China strains, State Department officials on Friday said Beijing’s reaction to North Korea’s latest nuclear test represented a “very strong condemnation.”
Many U.S. political officials and experts believe a better use of existing U.S. sanctions authority would pressure Beijing to rein in North Korea. A law passed earlier this year gave the administration authority to impose what are known as “secondary sanctions” against firms that do business with North Korea.
Because Chinese companies are virtually alone in dealing with North Korea, they would bear the brunt of any sanctions.
“It is clear the Obama administration’s enforcement efforts are falling short,” said Rep.Ed Royce (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Most notably, the administration has yet to impose sanctions on any of the many Chinese companies and banks that…continue to support the North Korean regime. This must change.”
Bruce Klingner, a former Central Intelligence Agency official now a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, said the effect of sanctions against Chinese firms could quickly change the calculations in Beijing.
“Even if you were to sanction one of them, it sends a strong signal,” he said.
The White House has grown alarmed at the frequency with which North Korea has conducted nuclear tests, missile launches and other research aimed at refining its nuclear weapons abilities.
The latest nuclear test, which came shortly after North Korea tested three ballistic missiles, elicited a statement from Mr. Obama that was stronger than the usual White House reaction.
“North Korea stands out as the only country to have tested nuclear weapons this century,” he said. “To be clear, the United States does not, and never will, accept North Korea as a nuclear state.”
The president had already signaled this past week that he would push for more sanctions on North Korea in response to the country’s ballistic-missile launches. Administration officials now say they could see new international sanctions adopted swiftly, as early as next week.
The unknown in Mr. Obama’s effort to corral countries into supporting new sanctions is China. Beijing signed onto sanctions earlier this year. But it’s not clear to the White House that they are prepared to move forward with additional ones. The effort could continue to play out at the United Nations General Assembly later this month.
But there is little doubt that the North Korea issue will fall to Mr. Obama’s successor. With just four months left in office, the president is unlikely to undertake the sort of policy review that would precede a major shift.
Mr. Obama has offered to hold diplomatic talks with North Korea, but on Friday Mr. Obama said Pyongyang has only become more entrenched over the years.
Aside from the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. General Assembly meeting, drawing leaders from around the world, could represent another possible forum, convening later this month.
Among possible options the U.N. Security Council could consider range from tightening sanctions imposed earlier this year to further cutting off North Korea from the international banking system, experts said.
Experts point to an array of possible sanctions. One option would be to close a loophole in earlier sanctions and impose a complete ban on North Korean exports of coal, iron ore and iron—the largest known source of foreign income for the country.
The U.N. body banned the import of the three commodities from North Korea following its nuclear and long-range missile tests earlier this year, except if the proceeds are for “livelihood purposes.” Critics say the exemption, called for by China, allows most exports to continue largely uninterrupted.
Other possible punitive action against North Korea could include a ban on its use of the Swift international payments system, a step taken against Iran, said Mr. Klingner of the Heritage Foundation.
He said the U.S. could also try to encourage other countries to bar the use of North Korean labor. Around 50,000 North Koreans work abroad to make hundreds of millions of dollars each year for the state, according to estimates by human rights groups.