North Korea's Nuclear Mistake

Hydrogen-powered?

Photographer: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea's fourth nuclear test is an abrupt reminder that for Kim Jong Un, the costs of developing an atomic arsenal don't yet outweigh its benefits. Fortunately, the rest of the world has never been in a better position to show him that his math is incorrect.

The ability of the U.S., South Korea and Japan to change North Korea's behavior has always been constrained by two factors: the reluctance of China, North Korea's chief patron and economic partner, to crack down on its errant neighbor; and competing agendas among the U.S. and its allies.

Both dynamics are now changing. Under President Xi Jinping, relations between China and North Korea have ranged from barely tepid to downright chilly. China said it "firmly opposes" Wednesday's test, which only adds to Beijing's growing list of diplomatic headaches. And the recent landmark agreement between Japan and South Korea on the divisive "comfort women" issue paves the way for closer strategic cooperation between the two countries.

So the stage is set for a more robust and productive response to this latest North Korean provocation (which, despite Pyongyang's claims, most likely was not a hydrogen bomb). The United Nations Security Council will doubtless issue new sanctions on North Korea, and China's assent will be key to both their imposition and ultimate success. Moreover, despite North Korea's status as a pariah state, it has not faced the stiffer sanctions that have been imposed on Iran, for instance. (One effective precedent: the penalties that the George W. Bush administration imposed -- and then prematurely lifted -- on foreign banks linked to North Korea's illicit dealings.) Their success will also depend on multilateral support.

Legislative efforts to compel the imposition of broad U.S. sanctions on North Korea and its enablers, and to limit the president's flexibility in waiving them, are misguided. China, for one, will balk at unilateral sanctions on Chinese entities, and such tension could affect other important areas of the U.S.-China relationship. A better way to coax cooperation out of China is to make clear that North Korea's continued intransigence will force the U.S. and its allies to increase their military preparedness. More fundamentally, no matter how tough, sanctions by themselves will never compel a regime to give up the weapons it sees as the key to its survival.

Even as the world works harder to cut off Kim Jong Un's access to technology and assets that can go toward weapons of mass destruction, it should do more to help ordinary North Koreans. That means shedding more light on North Korea's human rights abuses, offering assistance during humanitarian disasters (even those that are self-inflicted), and using formal and informal cultural exchanges to give them a glimpse of the world beyond their fenced borders.

This won't be North Korea's last nuclear test. But it could mark the start of a more effective peaceful effort to one day make them a thing of the past.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.