In May I wrote that a North Korean nuclear test was clearly imminent. Last week's test came as no surprise. The test, and North Korea’s recent missile tests, show that sanctions are not working. If nothing changes, North Korea is moving inexorably towards an operational nuclear arsenal that will threaten not only its neighbours but the United States and many other countries. The time within which this threat can be averted is diminishing.

Sanctions must be increased to show North Korea that its defiance of Security Council resolutions is unacceptable. However, sanctions will not work without China’s cooperation. It is essential to persuade China that its own interests are increasingly threatened by North Korea’s actions. While China is anxious not to destabilise North Korea, applying whatever pressure is needed to change North Korean behaviour is now the least bad option.

In addition to sanctions it is also essential, as I argued in my previous post, to engage with North Korea to see if there are incentives that can persuade it to freeze its nuclear and missile programs. North Korea has long wanted to replace the current Korean Armistice Agreement with a peace settlement - let's engage and see if negotiations are possible. If nothing else, a rejection of negotiations could prompt China, and maybe the North Korean elite, to decide that Kim Jong-un has become too much of a liability.

The US won’t be in a position to consider such a major step until the new Administration is in place, next year. The key questions are:

  1. Is China prepared to pressure North Korea against further provocations until the new US Administration has a chance to consider engagement?
  2. Is North Korea prepared to signal that it would consider a nuclear and missile freeze as part of the negotiation of a peace settlement?