North Korea’s fourth nuclear test comes months after Iran reached a nuclear deal with a US-led group of world powers in which Tehran agreed to curtail its nuclear program in exchange for lifting imposed sanctions, which would help revive its economy.
Similar sanctions imposed on North Korea soon after its 2006 nuclear test has failed to pave a pathway for serious nuclear talks. North Korea’s launch of a long-range rocket in February and a nuclear test in January were widely condemned as a flagrant violation of UN resolutions. Experts say that there is no statistical evidence that the nuclear test and the subsequent sanctions had any impact on North Korean trade. Negotiations to curb the North’s nuclear activities will succeed in the short run. It is nevertheless important for the US and other countries to show Pyongyang that its actions have negative consequences. After the first nuclear test in 2006, North Korea carried out three more tests in 2009, 2013 and 2016.
Thus, the failure of the sanctions has been one of the main reasons why North Korea has been aggressive throughout. The UNSC resolution had imposed an embargo on export and import of heavy weapons as well as the export of luxury goods to North Korea, though the implementation of the sanctions was left to individual-sanctioning countries which created loopholes in the process. Only tougher sanctions which directly target the top leadership like freezing overseas bank accounts and halting transactions connected to weapons trade can bring the country into negotiations.
Apart from this, the support of China who is a primary trading partner is crucial in bringing North Korea to the bargaining table. Though initially against harsh sanctions due to individual concerns and interests such as regime collapse, a refugee influx across the border and a reunited Korea that would be a US ally, China seems to have lost patience after the 2013 nuclear test by North Korea as they imposed new sanctions and called for nuclear talks.
Since China’s support is required for the implementation of effective sanctions that would compel North Korea to be genuine during the negotiation process, world powers should come forward to assure full support to China to tackle any negative impact of strict sanctions against North Korea.
Recent efforts by the US to lobby China to shift its policy don’t seem to have gained much ground. While offering an undertaking to support China in the case of a crisis can set a medium for China to act, world powers especially the US should find diplomatic ways to increase the opportunity cost of China’s commitment to maintain the stability of its neighbour.
Unlike previous measures, the economic sanctions imposed this time around create the legal scope for the US to sanction a wide range of foreign individuals or entities engaged in listed, proscribed activities with North Korea.
Joint efforts by Japan and South Korea will be productive in this endeavour through the deployment of advanced missile defences and defence cooperation with other countries. Thus, negotiations taking in all stakeholders can pave a possible but challenging path to deal with the North Korean threat.