Another round of sanctions has been imposed on North Korea by the United Nations security council after its sixth and largest nuclear test. These include restrictions on oil imports and a ban on textile exports with an eventual aim of starving the North Korean regime of fuel and income for its weapons programmes. North Korea warned the United States of America that it would pay “due price” and experience “pain and suffering” for leading the charge on a UN security council resolution imposing harsh sanctions on Pyongyang.
The new sanctions had to be watered down in response to Russian and Chinese objections. Originally, the security council was to consider an oil embargo and halting exports of textiles while subjecting Kim Jong-un to financial and travel bans, causing North Korean propaganda outlets to claim that the US was “frantic” to manipulate the security council over Pyongyang’s recent test of a hydrogen bomb. But the new measure drops the blacklisting of Kim, and relaxes the earlier sanctions proposed on oil and gas.
Despite several rounds of sanctions on North Korea, economic pressure does not seem to have had any significant effect on Pyongyang’s nuclear programme.
Yet there are few effective military options on the table for the US. A pre-emptive strike would, at best, only be a temporary blow against the North Korean capabilities. Shooting down North Korean missiles with the proven Aegis anti-missile system on US warships in the Pacific is also not foolproof. Employing the $300 billion US ballistic missile defence systems based in California and Alaska only have about a 50 per cent success rate, that too under testing conditions designed to ensure success. The Pentagon, as it does, has been running war games about potential conflicts in North Korea for decades but it tends to produce unpalatable outcomes.
Regional politics also keeps intruding. Despite the White House’s suggestion that Washington might be interested in helping South Korea deploy nuclear weapons, Seoul has made it clear that this is not an option under consideration. Trump’s announcement that the US will scrap a free trade deal with South Korea has prompted a backlash with growing fears that walking away from a commitment would lead Seoul to doubt American security guarantees.
China is also keeping its powder dry. It is preparing its troops for an unspecified ‘surprise attack’ by organizing drills on the coast of the Bohai Sea in the wake of North Korea’s recent nuclear test.
Russia and China have reiterated that the US and South Korea should freeze all military drills since they anger North Korea. They have also asked for a halt in the deployment of THAAD, the controversial anti-missile system, in exchange of Pyongyang’s cessation of its weapons programmes. The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review is examining the idea of building smaller yield tactical nuclear weapons that the US military could use to deter adversaries. The proposal is likely to face stiff opposition in the Congress.
As the dust settles after the North Korean nuclear belligerence, there are more questions than answers about the future of East Asian security.
This commentary originally appeared in The Telegraph.