North Korea’s sixth nuclear test – coming hours after state media showed Kim Jong Un inspecting a new thermonuclear warhead for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) – adds additional urgency to an already critical issue for the U.S. and its allies.
Following two ICBM tests in July and two successful intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) tests in May and August, Pyongyang is making rapid progress on the final stages of testing of weapons systems capable of delivering high yield nuclear explosives to cities across the United States.
South Korea’s government on Sunday rapidly convened a National Security Council meeting in response to the test and discussed deploying some of the United States’ most powerful strategic assets on the Korean peninsula, as well as calling for additional new sanctions.
Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that Japan can never tolerate North Korean nuclear tests while the Chinese and Russian foreign ministries strongly condemned Pyongyang’s latest test.
What, then, happens next? What can the U.S. and its allies now do in response? Will China and Russia this time agree on additional sanctions at the United Nations Security Council? And are we now looking at conditions that could provoke war?
To find out, NK News spoke to the following North Korea specialists:
- Catherine Dill, Senior Research Associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey
- Christopher Green, Ph.D. candidate at Leiden University in the Netherlands
- Prof. Georgy Toloraya, Director of Korean Programs at the Institute of Economy at the Russian Academy of Science, former diplomat to North Korea
- Ji-young Song, Senior Lecturer in Korean Studies at the University of Melbourne
- Myong-Hyun Go, Ph.D. Research Fellow at The Asan Institute for Policy Studies
- Sandra Fahy, Associate Professor at Sophia University
1. What can the U.S. and its allies now do in response to this test and the DPRK’s claims that thermonuclear warheads are ready for North Korea’s ICBM missiles?
Sandra Fahy: First, we need to recognize that the latest information is coming from the KCNA. The best way to interpret this is to recall that any reporting in the KCNA is always a blend of information with facts and context skewed or missing.
The message is always skewed in favor of the DPRK. North Korea wants the U.S. and the alliance to believe that North Korea can destroy them. Clearly their nuclear program is advancing, but the alliance needs to proceed with caution and confirm through gathering further on-the-ground information wherever possible.
Myong-hyun Go: North Korea’s latest provocation, while grievous, was expected by the U.S. and the allies. It is not going to affect the current policy framework towards North Korea.
The U.S. and its allies are going to push for stricter sanctions through the United Nations. It is likely there will be some sort of restriction on oil imports by North Korea along with additional export bans.
But with this test North Korea could declare the completion of its nuclear weapons development and look for accommodation from the U.S.
“Completion” implies a promise that there will be no more “provocations”, at least in terms of nuclear tests. If that’s the case, the U.S. and its allies will be forced to respond to this test differently than in previous instances.
Georgy Toloraya: Now we are going to hear lots of inflammatory rhetoric from the U.S. and even some military measures, short of actual war. Perhaps a sea blockade, as well as ‘punishing’ of the countries ‘supporting’ North Korea.
Also insistence on “isolating sanctions” at the UN.
Catherine Dill: The U.S. and its allies have the same options available to them in responding as they have throughout the summer: seek more severe UN sanctions; conduct reassurance exercises; seek negotiations; and take military action.
I worry in particular that North Korea may feel compelled to conduct an atmospheric nuclear test or a live firing exercise if others do not acknowledge a successful test.
Christopher Green: I think the world has established that there is no acceptable military resolution to today’s Korean peninsula crisis. However, we forget that this goes for all sides.
North Korea is certainly not going to start a war, and as long as the robustness of the U.S.-ROK and U.S.-Japan alliances is communicated and military balance in the region is maintained, there is no reason to panic.
We can keep doing what we’ve been doing for seven decades. But at the same time, we do need to think hard about how, and what, we can negotiate with a nuclear and missile-equipped North Korea.
Ji-young Song: I believe secret talks through 1.5 track between North Korea and the U.S. have been underway. North and South Koreas also met in Bangkok for the census.
No attractive carrots were presented by Washington or Seoul. The sixth nuke (h-bomb) test came out at this stalemate with the U.S., and also as a rally against China and Russia that joined the latest sanctions. Sanctions have been tried. Now time to try offering carrots.
2. What kind of appetite do you think there is in China and Russia for additional sanctions at the United Nations Security Council?
Christopher Green: It depends on what those sanctions are.
China and Russia will probably vote for a UN resolution on the matter after a period of back-and-forth behind the scenes, but neither is going to cede full control over cross-border interactions.
Given its anger at North Korea conducting a nuclear test in the run up to its 19th Party Congress in mid-October, the Xi government may be particularly tempted to limit oil supplies for a spell to signal deep disquiet, but that still leaves control in Beijing’s hands, which is where they want it.
Catherine Dill: This is an interesting question given the realities of the sixth nuclear test.
Preliminary social media reports from the border regions in China and Russia indicate that Chinese and Russian citizens felt tremors from the nuclear test.
Such a tangible impact may increase the necessity of responding with additional UN sanctions.
Ji-young Song: China and Russia have a tempting appetite beyond sanctions. They may want to be a peace negotiator to demonstrate their influence over North Korea.
One of them will try talking to Pyongyang to come to the table and to the U.S., South Korea and Japan to negotiate who’s going to pay for freezing the North’s nuclear program.
No one wants to pay, except for South Korea at the moment.
The U.S. is likely to buck pass to China, which will then press South Korea to pay instead. Japan may think of a cheap deal with Pyongyang.
Georgy Toloraya: Russia will support some new sanctions but not ‘isolating’ ones.
Reduction of crude oil supplies is possible with exceptions for humanitarian reasons.
Oil products such as gasoline, almost if no use for military purposes should be excluded from sanctions.
Myong-hyun Go: Although China and Russia are skeptical of multilateral sanctions, China regards North Korea’s nuclear tests as ultimate provocations that warrant strong sanctions by the UN, in part because the tests take place close to its border with North Korea.
All previous UNSCR except for 2371 were issued in the aftermath of a North Korean nuclear test.
There is no doubt that China and Russia will agree to a new round of sanctions.
Sandra Fahy: With this latest test, there may be more interest from Russia and China to curb North Korea’s volatile testing.
Russia and China are increasingly placed in a tough position by the decisions Kim Jong Un is making.
They may seek for other means of de-escalation, however, beyond the UNSC, and it would be worthwhile to listen to their ideas.
3. Japanese media said a petrol and diesel price hike in place since April in North Korea followed an order by Kim Jong Un to prepare for anticipated future sanctions. What impact do you think any oil embargo would now have on Pyongyang?
Myong-hyun Go: It will make North Korea’s economy difficult, but the impact is not going to be felt immediately.
We don’t know how big North Korea’s strategic reserve of oil is, and also the coal that was destined for export, which is now banned, could be diverted for electricity generation for internal consumption.
All these factors would mitigate the impact on the North Korea’s economy. But I am sure North Korea will explore a diplomatic opening before the economy starts feeling the bite from the energy embargo.
Sandra Fahy: An oil embargo would add pressure to the daily lives of North Koreans, mostly in the urban centers, and in industry.
However, as with all things, Kim Jong Un would triage resources to secure the sovereignty of the state.
That means focusing on the security of the state in defending itself against the ‘enemy’ outside its borders.
Ji-young Song: It will have huge impact on ordinary people but Kim Jong Un doesn’t care.
He has piled enough stock.
China and Russia can always send oil.
Christopher Green: North Korea has been trying to diversify its list of fuel suppliers for some time, which tells you how seriously it takes the question of over-reliance on a few, mostly Chinese suppliers.
Fuel is one of North Korea’s very weak links.
However, they know as well as we do that a full embargo is quite unlikely, all the more so given today’s febrile North East Asian political situation.
Catherine Dill: North Korea clearly has been preparing for this test for quite some time, not only in terms of technology but in anticipating the economic consequences and preparing for them.
Given these measures, an oil embargo would have less of an immediate impact, but it is unclear how long and severe of future sanctions for which North Korea apparently has been preparing.
Georgy Toloraya: North Koreans seem to be stockpiling all kind of fuel for some time.
So we will see rationing of gasoline and other fuel and probably no sale for private owners.
Goodbye taxis, but a rickshaw and bicycle business might develop. In agriculture, fuel is not existential anyway.
4. How worried are you about unintended escalations at this point and risks of possible war?
Ji-young Song: The current condition is highly worrisome for mainly two reasons.
First, Trump’s miscalculation to use North Korea to divert domestic political problems overseas to punish Kim’s bad behavior.
Second, Kim Jong Un’s attempt to emulate his grandfather, Kim Il Sung who was 38 years old when he invaded South Korea in 1950 with Stalin and Mao’s permission. Kim Jong Un is 35-36 years old this year.
He probably doesn’t need Putin or Xi’s permission as he has de facto self-defense nuclear power to deter a U.S. attack and threaten South Korea.
Georgy Toloraya: The possibility of a conflict is higher than ever, but this is predictable for Pyongyang and falls into North Korea’s strategy.
They take this risk and are prepared for it better than their counterparts. They probably hope the U.S. won’t have the guts to start an actual war but are ready for a limited symmetrical answer for a “surgical strike”.
For example: Chongwadae for Kim Jong Un’s HQ’s, a ROK nuclear power plant for Yongbyon, the shoot down of a U.S. or ROK plane or ship for an occasional intrusion…
There will NOT be an immediate all-out war, but they are ready for escalation.
Sandra Fahy: The U.S. has a president that seems to speak (or tweet) before thinking.
This has already lead to an escalation in the war of words between the U.S. and DPRK.
The risk of one side miscalculating the other has always been there between these two countries – and violent rhetoric only amps up that fear.
Calm heads and caution should prevail to avoid a major catastrophe.
Catherine Dill: I have been quite worried about unintended escalations for most of the summer, and I am even more so now after the sixth nuclear test.
As of this writing, there is no response yet from the United States, but I worry about what response the U.S. might take, and how Pyongyang might perceive it.
Christopher Green: The danger of unintended escalation is always there, and we mustn’t be sanguine about it.
However, when American analysts review the way North Korea signaled its intent before the test and then reported it afterward, they will observe that in addition to resolve, Pyongyang sought to convey a measure of responsibility.
If we work on the assumption that the U.S. won’t do anything rash, either, then the ingredients for stability are there.
Myong-hyun Go: As I mentioned before, this latest provocation by North Korea was within the range of expectations by the international community.
As such it is unlikely to lead to a military response by the United States.
Edited by: Chad O’Carroll
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