The White House moved quickly to debunk North Korea’s exaggerated claim that a Jan. 5 "artificial earthquake" at the site where Pyongyang had conducted three previous nuclear tests was a breakthrough detonation of a hydrogen bomb. The size of the blast was similar to that of North Korea’s January 2013 test and had a yield thousands of times lower than the yield expected of a hydrogen blast. But in downplaying North Korea’s claim so as not to feed Kim Jong-un’s cravings for international attention, the Barack Obama administration risks underplaying the growing danger posed by North Korea’s unchecked efforts to develop nuclear and missile capabilities needed to threaten a nuclear strike on the United States.
Instead, the Obama administration is conducting what then-Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice in February of 2013 called the "usual drill" in responding to a North Korean nuclear test: Condemnation of North Korea, expressions of assurance to allies including nuclear-capable B-52 overflights of the peninsula, diplomacy to strengthen U.N. sanctions on North Korea, and temporarily increased pressure on China to squeeze North Korea. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress has expressed outrage and is seeking to impose additional sanctions on North Korea, but such sanctions will bite only if China cooperates.
North Korea’s calculation in creating another nuclear provocation is that China’s need for stability on its periphery and its geostrategic anxiety about a unified Korea allied with the United States will protect Pyongyang from retribution and give it the space it needs to survive. North Korea’s decision to conduct a fourth nuclear test in defiance of Chinese opposition shows the extent to which Kim Jong-un has taken Beijing’s extensive food and fuel support for granted. Instead, Kim rationally bets that China will not stomach the consequences of regime change by U.S.-led or supported military coercion in North Korea; Pyongyang is likely correct in its assessment.
In the absence of a strategic end and unified political will among the concerned parties, particularly the United States, China and South Korea, the "usual drill" will likely be ineffective in convincing or coercing North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. From the beginning of the Obama administration, North Korea has rejected the extended hand that President Obama offered to other U.S. adversaries, instead clenching its fists and doubling down on the goal of developing a survivable nuclear strike capability. The young Kim’s claim to have developed hydrogen bomb capability underscores the fact that the nuclear program has become a useful tool for maintaining domestic legitimacy of the Kim regime.
The Obama administration tried to talk the North Koreans into denuclearization through a failed 2012 "Leap Day understanding" that sought a North Korean pledge to freeze nuclear and missile testing and come back to the negotiation table. But that effort failed three weeks later as the "Great Successor" sought to burnish his credentials with further "satellite" launches and later another nuclear test. The 2013 push for sanctions, which the Chinese reluctantly accepted, may have slowed North Korea’s progress. But last week’s test shows that North Korea has not yet digested the international community’s message that North Korea’s nuclear development will endanger rather than enhance the Kim regime’s prospects for survival.
To show the North Koreans that nuclear development is indeed a dead-end option, the United States must work with its allies to expand sanctions to target businesses and banks that refuse to cease cooperation with North Korea. North Korea must bear a tangible cost for its defiance of repeated warnings from its neighbors to desist from further nuclear and missile tests. Such a course is a necessary self-defensive step short of regime change to contain North Korea’s continuing nuclear and missile development efforts and to impose a de facto freeze on its program.
China’s cooperation toward this end is an essential litmus test of Beijing’s willingness to work together on a clear and present common threat to regional and global security. Only if the international community can impose a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear and missile development will there be a prospect that Kim might move back to denuclearization. Otherwise, it is reasonable to expect North Korea to continue its quest to obtain a survivable nuclear deterrent and strike capabilities that the Kim regime has judged to be critical for survival.
This piece originally appeared on the Washington Examiner. See the original op-ed here.