Nuclear threat

nuclear weapons

(Photo: AFP)

Earlier this month, leaders from the United States of America, South Korea, and Japan held a trilateral meeting in Madrid. The main topic of their discussion was the security situation in East and North Asia given that North Korea is thought to have completed preparations for a seventh nuclear test. This comes after the failure in June of the United Nations Security Council to adopt a resolution condemning Pyongyang for test-firing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) which likely gives the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un the capability to launch a nuclear attack on the USA, South Korea, or Japan. East Asia expert Andrew Yeo in a Washington Post article says there are three broad areas of concern the Madrid meeting focussed on ~ the sanctions regime against North Korea showing signs of coming apart, South Korea and the USA champing at the bit to up the ante, and the undermining of the global non-proliferation effort. Economic sanctions have been the international community’s go-to response to Pyongyang’s longrange missile and nuclear tests, but their effectiveness is increasingly under question.

For over a decade starting 2006, multiple United Nations (UN) resolutions okaying the implementation of ever harsher sanctions seeking to dissuade North Korea have been the norm. Initially, the sanctions regime seemed to be working. But from 2017, writes Yeo, as a UN panel of experts tasked with evaluating their effectiveness has pointed out, significant gaps in sanctions enforcement have been observed. China and Russia both see sanctions in general as a Western tool to weaponise the global economy against autocracies. “Neither Beijing nor Moscow are interested in pressing for further sanctions against North Korea,” adds Yeo. He is bang on. Given the efforts being made by the Kremlin to undermine West-led sanctions against Russia in the aftermath of its invasion of Ukraine, the global sanctions architecture envisaged by America-Europe as a punitive measure is being undercut in whatever manner possible. Blunting the effect of sanctions against North Korea (and Iran) are very much part of that game.

The Chinese, on the other hand, have taken the position that additional sanctions on North Korea would be counterproductive and inhumane. It suits their strategic interests to do so, naturally. Seoul and Washington, meanwhile, have begun responding to Pyongyang’s provocations aggressively and far more directly ~ including in ship and troop deployment. Multilateralism is clearly a thing of the past in a world of geopolitical flux, and by pushing back against North Korean pressure with pressure of their own, South Korea and the USA aim to raise the cost for Mr Kim of continuing with missile launches. The problem with this strategy is that North Korea is not a rational actor; the possibility of a sudden and dramatic escalation with disastrous consequences for the region is ever-present. Whether or not North Korea conducts a seventh nuclear test, the divisions between China-Russia and USA-Europe will ensure that UNSC resolutions enhancing sanctions against North Korea will attract vetoes going forward. Iran too is thought to be close to developing a nuclear weapon despite years-long economic sanctions against it. Nuclear non-proliferation is a non-starter in the current global environment.