North Korea’s latest nuclear test imposes a formidable challenge to the US, South Korea and the international community, as the provocation has brought the crisis to a different level to those of the past.
Most of all, the latest test apparently puts the rogue regime closer to the completion of its goal of attaining the capability to strike the mainland US with a nuclear-mounted intercontinental ballistic missile.
As with most claims from the isolated regime, Sunday’s special announcement of successful testing a miniaturized hydrogen bomb has yet to be verified by US and South Korean intelligence assets.
But the detonation, which South Korean authorities said registered at 5.7 magnitude, was five to six times more powerful than the last nuclear test one year ago.
North Korea claimed its fourth nuclear test in January last year was made by a hydrogen bomb. Then it took 20 months for the North to miniaturize a hydrogen device that could be put on an ICBM.
The North had already bragged about its long-range missile capability with two ICBM tests in July. Experts say the North has yet to acquire atmospheric re-entry technology for its ICBMs, but the latest developments clearly show it is close to gaining the capability to hit the US mainland with a nuclear-tipped ICBM.
With the North on the threshold of being a nuclear state and unwilling to cease its brinkmanship, the international community needs a whole new set of measures to deal with what has become a real threat to the world peace.
As the Seoul government suggested after Sunday’s detonation, the UN Security Council may well adopt a new resolution to add punitive measures on the Pyongyang government. There is no doubt that this time, cutting off supply of oil to the North should be a key element of fresh sanctions.
The US and other permanent members of the UNSC, such as the UK and France, should join forces to persuade or pressure China and Russia to endorse strangling the North’s economic lifeline. A maritime and air embargo, interdictions of North Korean ships going into and out of the country and all other available means -- aside from a military strike -- must be considered.
Separate actions to be taken by South Korea and the US should be based on the painful realization that whatever they have done since the North detonated its first nuclear bomb in 2006 has failed to stop the North from reaching the point it sits at now.
The North’s recent provocations show that it will never pay heed to whatever the US and South Korea say. US President Donald Trump and his aides have vacillated between military options and diplomatic solutions while South Korean President Moon Jae-in has put more emphasis on dialogue with the recalcitrant regime in the North.
The North has ignored all reconciliatory gestures made by the South’s government, and instead focused on its bellicose engagement with the US. For now, it is only an illusion for Moon to believe the North will listen to what he says only because he is a liberal president who was elected with a pledge to inherit the reconciliatory policy of the late presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moon-hyun. Kim Jong-un only wants a deal with the US as far as its nuclear and missile threats are concerned.
But it is the people of South Korea who live closest to the erratic, dangerous regime in the North. Kim Jong-un does not even need a long-range missile to deliver a nuclear device to the South.
The Seoul government’s most urgent job is to secure -- based on a tight alliance with the US -- defense and deterrence capability against possible nuclear and missile attacks from the North.
Deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense US missile shield system as soon as possible would be only one of the first steps. The allies also ought to discuss other actions that can achieve a “balance of terror,” like deployment of US nuclear-capable strategic assets or even tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea.