At issue was Pyongyang’s claim on September 3 that it had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb that could be fitted onto a long-range missile. The claim, made amid escalating tensions with its neighbors and the United States, could not be independently verified, but previous North Korean claims about its missile and nuclear programs have more or less been accurate; even when they appear exaggerated, they ultimately point to North Korea’s stated goal: of being able to target the contiguous United States with a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile.
Amid the often belligerent political rhetoric coming from Washington, the U.S. has tried to marshal a diplomatic response to North Korea’s actions. Last month the U.S. spearheaded UN sanctions on North Korea, which also passed the Security Council unanimously, in response to two ICBM tests in July. At the time, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, called those sanctions “the most stringent set of sanctions on any country in a generation.” They were expected to cost North Korea $1 billion, a third of its export revenue, each year. But as I noted at the time: “North Korea is already subject to separate U.S. sanctions and six previous rounds of UN sanctions, which have done little to change Pyongyang’s long-term behavior.” The country has a long and successful history of sanctions evasion; the measures usually make the regime more belligerent; and they ultimately did little to deter the North from carrying out further ballistic-missile tests and a nuclear test. If those sanctions did not deter North Korea, it’s not clear how another round will.
China and Russia have their own preferred approaches to the crisis, and they’re not always compatible with what the United States wants. China, which fears a destabilized North Korea, is Pyongyang’s main political and economic benefactor. Russia occupied that position during the Soviet era. It’s not that either country is happy with North Korea’s actions. China, by far North Korea’s biggest trade partner, is said to be furious with Kim, but, despite Western expectations that it can get him to change his behavior, its relationship with the North Korean leadership is poor. Beijing has not only taken steps to enforce the previous round of UN sanctions, it has taken some measures that go even further—for example banning new North Korean accounts in some of its biggest banks.
Russia, on the other hand, relies on North Korean labor, a valuable source of foreign exchange for the Kim regime; Moscow has also expressed skepticism about the efficacy of international sanctions. One reason for this could be Russia itself is under U.S. and EU sanctions for its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and its incursion into eastern Ukraine, but another is, as Russian President Vladimir Putin put it, “They’d rather eat grass than abandon their [nuclear weapons] program unless they feel secure.”