North Korea is reported to have conducted its fifth and largest underground nuclear test on September 9th. According to South Korean officials, monitors had picked up unusual seismic activity near a North Korean nuclear test site. For its part, North Korea did not deny that it had conducted a test. To the contrary, North Korea's state media claimed that the test would enable North Korea to produce "a variety of smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear warheads of higher strike power."
The explosive power of North Korea’s latest test is estimated, subject to further verification, to be approximately double the size of North Korea's last test conducted in January 2016 and five times the explosive power of its test conducted during the first year of President Obama's presidency in 2009. Four of the five nuclear tests that North Korea has conducted occurred under Obama’s watch. According to experts, North Korea is likely by 2020 to be able to build a workable intercontinental missile fitted with a nuclear warhead, with enough nuclear material accumulated to build up to 100 such warheads. The New York Times has quoted one expert, who has traveled to North Korea and formerly directed the Los Alamos weapons lab in New Mexico, as saying that North Korea has made a strategic shift from regarding its nuclear weapons as mere bargaining chips to “deciding they need a nuclear weapons fighting force.” In any case, bargaining chip or not, North Korea has continually breached the previous promises it has made to freeze its nuclear activities in return for economic aid.
Moreover, North Korea's most current provocation is once again in violation of a succession of United Nations Security Council resolutions, including one passed in March that contained a range of new punitive sanctions and embargoes imposed on the rogue regime. They have not worked. In fact, it seems that North Korea's missile launchings and nuclear tests combined are outpacing the ineffective measures the Security Council has been taking to try and deter them. In just the last month alone, North Korea has conducted four missile tests. Just three days before North Korea’s latest nuclear test, the Security Council had pulled together a press statement condemning the previous missile tests and alluding to the possibility of even more punitive actions if North Korea persisted in its violations. The press statement said in part: "The members of the Security Council reiterated that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea shall refrain from further actions, including nuclear tests, in violation of the relevant Security Council resolutions and comply fully with its obligations under these resolutions...The members of the Security Council agreed that the Security Council would continue to closely monitor the situation and take further significant measures in line with the Council’s previously expressed determination."
North Korea called the Security Council's bluff. Indeed, North Korea's megalomaniac leader Kim Jong-un seems to enjoy thumbing his nose at the United Nations.
In response to the September 9th nuclear test, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean national, expressed outrage over North Korea’s “brazen breach of the resolutions of the Security Council.” He called for “the Security Council to unite and take urgent action.” Ban added, “I do not simply understand why they are continuing like this. Of course, as one of the Korean citizens and as Secretary-General, I am deeply, deeply concerned and sad about this kind of continuing situation.” He urged North Korea’s authorities to heed “the calls of the international community and act as a Member State of the United Nations, which is required in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and relevant Security Council resolutions.”
North Korea has not heeded such calls in the past. It is naïve to expect that it will do so now. Nothing the UN Security Council does will stop North Korea on its path towards achieving its goal of becoming a viable nuclear armed power. Yet the Security Council keeps chasing its tail. Late Friday afternoon, the Security Council met in closed consultations to consider further measures in light of North Korea’s latest nuclear test. After the meeting, all the Security Council could do was to issue another press statement, which “strongly condemned this test.” The statement noted that the Security Council members will “begin to work immediately on appropriate measures under Article 41[of the UN Charter] in a Security Council resolution.” Article 41 authorizes the Security Council to decide on “measures not involving the use of armed force,” which could include further economic sanctions.
Ironically, President Obama had just completed his final trip to Asia as president, when news of North Korea's latest provocation broke. North Korea's steady march towards weaponizing nuclear warheads with higher strike power and developing missile systems to deliver them represents an existential threat to the entire Asian region including China and, ultimately, to the United States itself. Yet, Obama seemed most proud of his cooperation with China on moving forward with the Paris Agreement on climate change. Obama squandered the opportunity to work with China, beyond the ineffective Security Council sanctions, in combatting the common existential threat represented by North Korea's nuclear arms and missile delivery programs.
Obama’s so-called “Asia pivot,” which he initiated the same year as his precipitous withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq, has come at the expense of maintaining a focus on the volatile Middle East. Russia, Iran and the Islamist jihadists have been quick to fill the resulting power vacuum. Moreover, while Obama would like to think that Asia and the Middle East can be neatly separated, that is not the way the real world works. There is substantial evidence that Iran has been benefiting from access to North Korea’s nuclear warhead and ballistic missile systems program and technologies. According to a report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, there are concerns that Iran may be “outsourcing aspects of its nuclear weapons program” to North Korea. If so, North Korea’s unchecked progress on the path towards full scale nuclear weaponization and missile delivery capabilities benefits Iran as well, in spite of Obama’s loophole plagued nuclear deal with Iran. As the Foundation for Defense of Democracies report pointed out, Washington “needs a better understanding of Iranian and North Korean proliferation networks and the impact of U.S. government demarcates, designations, sanctions, and arrests in order to improve the possibility of interdicting illicit materials.”
UN Security Council resolutions, economic sanctions, and resumption of negotiations with the rogue state, which has repeatedly broken previous agreements, will not stop North Korea. A combination of significantly increased missile defense capabilities, choking off all trade with North Korea through use of the United States’ global financial leverage, and more aggressive interception of shipping into and out of North Korea need to be seriously considered by the next president. Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton has indicated that she continues to support Obama’s failed approach.