When the USGS announced that it had picked up seismic activity near P’unggye, it was immediately clear the 5.1 magnitude quake wasn’t natural – it was caused by an atomic bomb.
This particular detonation – a test to show the North is prepared to defend itself against “ferocious U.S. aggression” – is hardly the country’s first. The regime of the immortal Kim Jung Un (who died in 2012) had conducted two prior tests in 2006 and 2009, both of which drew criticism and sanctions from the international community.
These economic countermeasures were thought to be working because as of a year ago the peninsula had quieted down. Today’s test (following a pattern of escalation), however, makes it clear that diplomatic isolation and trade embargoes have been insufficient – in fact, they have been an utter failure.
In engineering, we define success or failure by measuring results against predefined criteria. If the criteria for a successful campaign of international sanctions was nuclear disarmament in the Korean peninsula, the detonation of a third weapon with seven to ten times the power of the first is clear confirmation the effort has failed.
So where do we go from here? That’s not really up to us.
China, not the US, will lead the way forward on the threat of a nuclear North Korea. As Rett pointed out to me earlier today, China clearly won’t allow North Korea to attack anyone with a nuclear missile. But it’s equally unlikely that it will allow any stronger countermeasures, besides maybe re-allocating military resources to neighboring countries. China wants to preserve North Korea as a communist buffer state to keep the capitalist South (and the thousands of US troops stationed there) away from its borders. Punishing the country they’ve been propping up as a shield makes little sense to Chinese leadership.
In short, a failure to deal with North Korea in the past has put us in a bind today. If there’s an easy way out, I’m not aware of it.