What to do about North Korea after its third nuclear test on Monday – this one possibly involving a device employing highly enriched uranium rather than plutonium, and perhaps small enough to fit on a missile?
Unfortunately, the international community is at a loss. North Korea is already sanctioned extensively and without China, we cannot tighten the noose a great deal more. China for its part does not wish to increase the economic pressure on Pyongyang much further, fearing that North Korean instability could result. Moreover, North Korea has already shown that when it is sanctioned, it often ups the ante rather than back down.
There is another dilemma: North Korea may be producing highly enriched uranium at a secret site. This could give it the capacity to produce up to several bombs’ worth of U-235 per year, in theory. As Graham Allison of Harvard and others have warned, this could lead to North Korea selling nuclear materials to the highest bidder — something the United States should, as Allison advises, warn North Korea not to do in the strongest possible terms.
And there is one more complication, although this one is of a different sort. It has to do with the longer-term prospects for encouraging North Korean reform. While hope is clearly evaporating that North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-Un, might be more inclined to consider changes at home, and detente with the outside world, than did his father or grandfather, we should want to keep that option alive. After all, Vietnam and China ultimately reformed even while keeping their communist systems. There is a chance that North Korea will too — less out of any softening of the regime’s attitudes than out of economic necessity.
Clearly the new, 30-year old Kim is not showing any reformist inclinations right now. But it is possible that he feels political pressure internally to establish himself with hardliners before he can pivot to a more reasonable line. This may not be the likely future trajectory, yet it cannot be ruled out.
So here’s an idea: any additional U.N. sanctions, above and beyond the base that now exists, could be temporary. They could be constructed in such a way as to sunset automatically in say two years if there is no further nuclear testing in the interim. But they would automatically return if North Korea were to conduct another test, again for two years’ duration—or perhaps for three or four years in that event, to avoid any suggestion that this approach is somehow soft or lenient.
Such an approach might prove more negotiable with Beijing. It could also give Kim Jong Un, the new and young leader, a chance to reassess his belligerent ways — rather than lock ourselves into a permanently hostile dynamic with him.
Any lifting of other, preexisting sanctions, including trade sanctions, would require resolution of the broader nuclear problem. North Korea would have to stop enriching uranium and agree to a long-term plan for gradual de-nuclearization. Indeed, if it did these things while also gradually making other reforms, outside powers could also offer it the prospect of substantial development assistance in the future as well.
We are not at a point where that kind of road map to a grand bargain and fundamentally improved relationship can be realistically pursued. For now, therefore, the goal should be more modest: to provide a firm response to North Korea’s unacceptable behavior, but do it in a way that can engender Chinese participation while not closing off the door to a calmer relationship down the road. Making any additional sanctions temporary could achieve this balance and should be considered.