THE standoff between North Korea and the West continues to bedevil the otherwise relatively stable Asia-Pacific region and spook global markets. The crisis took a turn for the worse when Pyongyang detonated over the weekend what it said was a hydrogen bomb that could be mounted on a missile.
It was North Korea’s sixth and most powerful weapons test, in defiance of the United Nations Security Council. It further raised the stakes and sent Seoul into a war-games mode, with the South Korean military firing ballistic missiles on Monday to simulate an attack on nuclear test sites used by Pyongyang.
Washington’s response, however, threatens to trigger a global catastrophe.
In reaction to Pyongyang’s latest provocation, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley proposed even more crippling sanctions, declaring “enough is enough” and saying North Korea was practically “begging for war.”
Haley’s tenacity is admirable – in August, the former South Carolina governor secured a unanimous vote in the Security Council to ban North Korean coal, iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore and seafood exports, as well as add North Korean persons and entities into a blacklist, earning praise in Washington.
But the latest missile tests only confirmed what Haley already knew: sanctions don’t work on Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of the most rogue of states.
The proposal is to further cripple the North Korean economy by imposing an oil embargo. South Korea, Japan, France and the United Kingdom are said to be supportive of new and tougher sanctions.
At this point, however, the wisdom of further sanctions has to be questioned. Seven sets of sanctions previously imposed by Security Council resolutions have only emboldened North Korea, instead of sobering it.
An oil embargo would plunge North Korea into political and economic turmoil that could irreversibly change the security equation.
Haley has to dial down on the rhetoric that was upped by her boss, US President Doland Trump, who threatened last month to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea for its defiance.
What is also needed is a strategic rollback on sanctions. The total ban on exports, particularly coal exports – the North’s source of hard cash – was apparently what triggered the latest tests.
China could be the key. Previously, the coal export restrictions only covered shipments to China, Pyongyang’s main market.
Analysts have said China could be the real target of the North’s latest provocations, with Pyongyang supposedly hoping Beijing could exert efforts to finally stage talks with the West.
Pyongyang should be persuaded – ideally by Beijing – to return to negotiations, and there is no shortage of inducements given the massive economic sanctions the North Korean people have endured over the years.