North Korea’s most powerful nuclear test yet shows that gradually escalating sanctions are not stopping it from becoming a nuclear state.
GENEVA — North Korea’s latest test of an atomic weapon leaves the United States with an uncomfortable choice: Stick with a policy of incremental sanctions that has failed to stop the country’s nuclear advances or pick among alternatives that range from the highly risky to the repugnant.
A hard embargo, in which the U.S. and its allies block all shipping into and out of North Korea and seek to paralyze its finances, risks confrontations that allies in Asia fear could quickly escalate into war. But restarting talks on the North’s terms would reward the defiance of its leader, Kim Jong Un, with no guarantee that he will dismantle the nuclear program irrevocably.
Speaking in Geneva early Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States was willing to negotiate with North Korea, but only if it agreed that the goal of those talks was for it to give up its weapons.
“We have made overture after overture to the dictator of North Korea,” he said, including on normalizing the country’s relationship with the West and a formal peace agreement to replace the 1953 armistice that halted the Korean War but not the state of hostilities.
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“All Kim Jong Un needs to do is say, ‘I’m prepared to talk about denuclearization,’ ” Kerry said.
Kim has rejected that, making it clear that whatever his grandfather and father intended, his nuclear program is for deterrence and strength, but not a bargaining chip.
For more than seven years, President Obama has adopted a policy of gradually escalating sanctions that the White House once called “strategic patience.” But the test Friday — the North’s fifth and most powerful blast yet, perhaps with nearly twice the strength of its last one — eliminates any doubt that that approach has failed and that the North has mastered the basics of detonating a nuclear weapon.
Despite escalating sanctions and the country’s technological backwardness, North Korea appears to have gotten past a rocky beginning with its nuclear tests, and enjoyed a burst of progress in its missile program during the past two years. American experts warn that it is speeding toward a day when it will be able to threaten the U.S. West Coast and perhaps the entire country.
“This is not a cry for negotiations,” said Victor Cha, who served in the administration of President George W. Bush and is a North Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “This is very clearly a serious effort at amassing real nuclear capabilities that they can use to deter the U.S. and others.”
Cha said the usual response from the U.S., South Korea and Japan — for another round of sanctions — was not likely to be any more successful at changing the North’s behavior than previous rounds. That means Obama’s successor will confront a nuclear and missile program far more advanced than the one that Obama began grappling with in 2009.
Obama on Friday condemned the North’s test and said it “follows an unprecedented campaign of ballistic-missile launches, which North Korea claims are intended to serve as delivery vehicles intended to target the United States and our allies.”
“To be clear, the United States does not, and never will, accept North Korea as a nuclear state,” he said.
Many experts who have dealt with North Korea say the United States may have no choice.
“It’s too late on the nuclear-weapons program — that is not going to be reversed,” William Perry, the defense secretary under President Clinton during the 1994 nuclear crisis with North Korea, said in August at a presentation in Kent, Conn.
The only choice now, he said, is to focus on limiting the missile program.
Yet the latest effort to do that, an agreement between the United States and South Korea to deploy an advanced missile-defense system in the South, has inflamed China, which says the system is also aimed at its weapons. While U.S. officials deny that, the issue has divided the U.S. and China so sharply that it will be even more difficult now for them to come up with a joint strategy for dealing with the North.
The breach between China and the United States was evident during Obama’s meeting with President Xi Jinping last week.
“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,” Obama said, referring to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, as the advanced missile-defense project is known.
But Obama noted that sanctions had failed at having much effect. That is largely because the Chinese have left open large loopholes that have kept the North Korean economy alive and, by some measures, enjoying more trade than at any time in years.
The U.N. Security Council, meeting in emergency consultations, agreed late Friday to work “immediately” on drafting a resolution imposing new sanctions on North Korea, said the council’s president for September, Ambassador Gerard van Bohemen of New Zealand.