North Korea sends a nuclear note to the world

North Korea's nuclear test Friday suggests that the world's attempts to rein in the country need to change, some say. 

Rick Bajornas/United Nations/AP
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks to reporters at United Nations headquarters Friday in New York. North Korea said it conducted a 'higher level' nuclear test explosion on Friday that will allow it to finally build an array of stronger, smaller and lighter nuclear weapons. Mr. Ban urged the Security Council 'to unite and take urgent actions.'

North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, carried out on Friday, is a sign that the current international approach to the outlaw nation is not working and needs to get “smarter,” not “tougher,” some experts say.  

Nothing world powers are doing appears to be impeding North Korea’s march to stronger, smaller nuclear weapons and the missiles capable of carrying them. Friday’s test – North Korea’s second nuclear test this year – followed a round of toughened sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council earlier this year.

That suggests simply doubling down on more sanctions isn’t enough. China will need to be brought in as a bigger part of the solution, and the international community might well have to consider the first direct talks with North Korea since six-party talks collapsed in 2009, says Jim Walsh, an expert on North Korea’s nuclear program.

“Sanctions by themselves aren’t going to work, this year has proved that,” says Dr. Walsh of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program. “It has to be sanctions married to a political strategy.”

A return to the negotiating table with Pyongyang realistically would not occur until after President Obama’s successor settles into the White House, he adds. But there are things the United States can be doing now, and first among them is working more closely with China to slow North Korea’s progress.

“Ninety percent of North Korea’s trade is with China, so us simply wagging our finger at them won’t work,” Walsh says.

China, the North’s strongest ally, reacted with tougher language than usual Friday, saying it “resolutely” opposed the test and demanding in a statement that the North “stop making any moves that worsen the situation.”

China had already been embarrassed earlier this week when North Korea conducted missile tests as Hangzhou hosted the G20 summit.

The US should be encouraging China to shut down the growing number of channels between private Chinese companies and North Korean entities that have set up shop inside China, Walsh says.

A study by Walsh and John Park, a colleague from Harvard’s Kennedy School, discovered that the North Korean entities that once traded with China from the border are now “embedded” in China’s expanding private-sector economy.

This has made it easier for North Korea to get materials for its weapons programs.

“What we recommend is that the US work with China,” Walsh says, “encourage them to use their existing national laws to go after the Chinese middlemen who are acting as the brokers for what we call ‘North Korea Inc.,’ the [entities] that are inside China and procuring” for the nuclear and missile programs.

Other experts say the sanctions imposed by the Security Council in March – particularly those targeting illicit financial transactions – need time to show results.

In the meantime, the US is ramping up defensive measures in the region, such as deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense antimissile system in South Korea.

Mr. Obama, now on his way home from a trip to Asia, defended deployment of the THAAD system as part of the “extended deterrence” the US would offer allies in the region.

While China objects to the THAAD deployment in its neighborhood, Obama said he told Chinese President Xi Jinping this week that the US has to be able to defend itself and its allies from the North’s “increasingly provocative behavior and escalating capabilities.”

Moreover, he said he indicated to President Xi that “if the THAAD bothered him … they need to work with us more effectively to change Pyongyang’s behavior.”

Given the key role China will need to play in curtailing the North, now is not the time dial up tensions, Walsh argues.

“This is an opportunity for everyone worried about these advances to get back on the same page,” he says. “The US should take advantage of the moment.”

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