Waiting for North Korea's Next Nuclear Test

Just last month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the United Nations Security Council that the era of letting North Korea call the shots was over. Commenting on a record in which North Korea has carried out five nuclear tests since 2006, two of them just last year, Tillerson said: "For too long the international community has been reactive in addressing North Korea." He added, "Those days must come to an end. Failing to act now on the most pressing security issue in the world may bring catastrophic consequences."

Yet here we are, with Reuters reporting, based on a news conference held Friday in Beijing by senior State Department official Susan Thornton, that the U.S. is "looking at discussing with China a new Security Council resolution on pre-negotiated measures to reduce delays in any response to further nuclear tests or other provocations from the North."

In other words, the U.S. is waiting to react to North Korea's next nuclear test, which North Korean officials have already threatened to carry out, and for which preparations have been visibly underway.

With the variation that the diplomatic response (providing China agrees) would be "pre-negotiated," this sounds disturbingly similar to the ritual that President Obama's administration dolled up under the fatuous label of "strategic patience." The result, on Obama's watch, was that North Korea carried out four of its five nuclear tests to date, and accelerated its missile program to include over the past three years -- as The Wall Street Journal reported recently -- the launches of "more major missiles than in the three previous decades combined."

The Obama ritual went like this: North Korea would carry out a forbidden nuclear test (in 2009, 2013, and two in 2016). The U.S. would turn to the UN Security Council, which after a period of closed-door wrangling would respond by approving yet another sanctions resolution, which would then be advertised by the U.S. as tough... tougher... toughest. Whatever.

Recall America's former ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, declaring after the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2270 in March 2016 (in response to North Korea's fourth nuclear test) that “this resolution is so comprehensive, there are many provisions that leave no gap, no window.” That resolution was followed last September by North Korea's fifth nuclear test, to which the UN responded by adding to the gapless, windowless sanctions resolution #2270 the even more gapless and windowless resolution #2321.

One might reasonably ask: Why reserve all those ever tougher sanctions for North Korea's next nuclear test, or the one after that? If gapless, windowless sanctions have yet more holes that need plugging, why not do it all now?

If I might hazard a guess, the obstacle is not solely that veto-wielding permanent Security Council members China and Russia have no serious interest in trying to throttle North Korea's Kim regime. Even when they vote for those ever tougher UN sanctions, they have been, to put it generously, highly casual about enforcing them. On the evidence, China -- despite its public expressions of disapproval and disappointment over each North Korean nuclear test -- has nonetheless, for decades now, allowed North Korea to proceed. It is past time to ask quite seriously whether Beijing (never mind its public posturing) reached a quiet decision quite some years ago that China can live comfortably enough with a nuclear-armed North Korea that dedicates itself to bedeviling such leading democracies as South Korea, America and Japan.