The Slatest

Why the U.S. Can’t Do Anything to Stop North Korea’s Quest for Nukes

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspecting a catfish farm at an undisclosed location in North Korea on Dec. 12, 2015.

KNS/AFP/Getty Images

The United States flew two B-1 bombers over South Korea on Tuesday in a demonstration of force after North Korea’s largest ever nuclear test last week, something that’s also been done after previous tests. The U.N. Security Council is also considering “significant” new sanctions against Pyongyang … as it has after previous tests.

There are hopes that these new sanctions can close some loopholes left open by the most recent U.N. resolution, passed in March. The U.S. may also try to ramp up its own sanctions on the regime. On Monday, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew suggested that the sanctions already in place are having an impact, saying that they “have effectively cut North Korea off from the global economy.” This would be great if that were the goal of the sanctions. Unfortunately, the goal is to get North Korea to stop building nuclear weapons, something the sanctions clearly have not done.

North Korea is a textbook example of the sort of country where sanctions are just not effective. International sanctions tend to work best on countries that have significant domestic opposition movements, or at least significant rivalries among political elites, and want to be part of the international community. Apartheid South Africa, or more recently Iran, are good examples. A totalitarian personality cult whose identity is based largely on defiance of the Western world isn’t likely to acquiesce to sanctions.

It also helps if world powers are united in trying to pressure the country, which is why China, North Korea’s largest trading partner and on-again, off-again political ally, is a critical factor. The Chinese government condemned the latest test and may agree to new sanctions at the United Nations, but that’s unlikely to shut down the bustling trade between the two countries. The North Koreans also have a knack for timing: The latest test comes at a time when China is irate at South Korea and the United States over plans to deploy an advanced missile system in the South, a move many Chinese hawks could view as equally provocative as the North’s nuclear tests. The divide over the missile system, not to mention an array of other disputes between China, its neighbors, and the United States, will make a united front against Kim Jong-un’s latest provocation difficult to build.

The fact is, as analyst Andray Abrahamian puts it, China’s priorities on the Korean peninsula are “no war, no instability, no nukes” in that order. Beijing doesn’t want to see a collapsed North Korean regime, because that could bring the U.S. defense umbrella up to China’s southern border. And alarming as North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are, South Korea and the United States don’t really want to deal with the instability and likely massive refugee crisis that would result from a North Korean collapse either.

The U.S. and South Korea can continue to tighten sanctions and stage all the demonstrations of strength they want, but Kim likely knows that there’s only so much anyone is willing to do to stop him as North Korea gets ever closer to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power.