WASHINGTON -- The global community will have to become more creative with its penalties if it hopes to deter North Korea from following its latest nuclear test with further sanctions, issue experts said on Tuesday.
The U.N. Security Council convened an emergency session hours after the North’s underground nuclear blast on Tuesday, but took no action except to condemn the act.
As punishment for 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests, Pyongyang is already under Security Council sanctions that ban it from all international weapons trade and target key figures in the Stalinist regime. The United States and other nations have implemented their own unilateral sanctions that include prohibitions on import of North Korean products.
The cumulative effective of these stringent measures has been to leave the vast majority of North Koreans impoverished but they have failed to arrest Pyongyang’s march toward a deliverable nuclear weapon. The aspiring nuclear power in December conducted its first successful launch of a space rocket that has clear implications for the development of ICBMs, and Tuesday’s nuclear blast was initially analyzed as having a larger explosive yield than previous tests.
"North Korea’s efforts to procure nuclear and dual-use goods and raw materials for its nuclear programs must be addressed by targeted countries through improved United Nations sanctions resolutions and domestic trade control laws and the enforcement of those measures," the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security said in a Tuesday statement. "North Korea continues to improve its nuclear programs through its access to such goods and materials, particularly through trading companies and citizens located in neighboring China."
It is not yet known whether Tuesday's nuclear device was fueled by plutonium, as in the two earlier trials, or weaponized uranium. An unverified claim by North Korea that the test involved a “miniaturized” system suggests it employed plutonium.
The North is believed to possess dwindling reserves of plutonium left over from a now-disabled reactor that could fuel approximately six weapons. It is the country’s uranium enrichment program that is of concern to most nonproliferation experts.
North Korea allowed U.S. experts to view a uranium enrichment plant in 2010 but the scope of the nation’s program remains unknown in the absence of U.N. inspections.
"The key now is denying to the North the materials that will allow them to further expand and sustain what seems to be a functioning uranium enrichment program,” George Lopez, a former member of the Security Council’s expert panel on North Korea sanctions, said in a Tuesday telephone interview.
Pyongyang evidently has managed to gain access to most components needed for its uranium enrichment program by purchasing products on the international market that are not covered by sanctions and then adapting them for use in its uranium centrifuge operation, according to Lopez.
“These programs are of course very, very difficult to maintain if you have very few domestically produced materials from epoxy to rotor valves to any number of things that just sort of keep the stuff running.” said the ex-U.N. adviser. “The breakdown rate on [enrichment programs] is very high, which is why there are very few states that can do this.”
Detailed lists on the dozens of commonly commercially available substances and components needed to operate centrifuge plants have already been compiled by the U.N. panel of experts on North Korea sanctions and by the multinational Nuclear Suppliers Group. However, the Security Council has not yet taken the step of prohibiting Pyongyang’s access to the large majority of the items, said Lopez, who teaches international relations at the University of Notre Dame.
“Controlling illicit trade is key,” he said.
Multiple envoys to the 15-nation Security Council told Reuters they expect Washington and current council president South Korea will attempt to secure a new sanctions resolution instead of expanding international measures already in place. The major question now is whether veto-holder China will agree to harsh new penalties against its longtime ally.
Lopez said the Security Council should approve for one year “catchall” sanctions that would block North Korea from purchasing enrichment-relevant items such as aluminum byproducts, all epoxies, and any kind of turbine or rotor valve.
“That is what would be considered harsh punishment measures by the North Koreans, disturbing their trade and development, but it is probably what at this stage would be called for, at least for a while,” he said.
Security Council Resolution 2087, passed last month in the wake of the North’s December space launch, expressed nations’ “determination to take significant action in the event of a further D.P.R.K. launch or nuclear test.”
Lopez believes these actions could involve toughening existing financial penalties to include the search and seizure of cash assets by foreign governments from North Korean diplomats and attaches traveling abroad.
There are additional steps to curtailing the North’s WMD development and proliferation that fall largely on China’s shoulders’ to implement as it is North Korea’s principal trade partner, the sanctions expert said. They include a closer monitoring by Chinese authorities of exactly who is flying into Pyongyang’s small airport from Beijing.
“Only China really knows how many Iranian engineers and scientists are going back and forth. We know there are Tehran-to-Beijing flights,” Lopez said. “We just don’t know how many … get on to the commuter plane to Pyongyang. We suspect that for a while that number has been increasing.”
Iran and the North have taken steps in recent months to deepen their bilateral cooperation in multiple technological spheres, including it is believed, weapons development.
China should also agree to be more vigilant in inspecting goods coming into and out of its major shipping hub at Dalian, Lopez said.
“With China’s support I think it would almost certainly be possible to tighten … and prevent the inflow of goods that would be useful to North Korea,” said James Acton, a senior associate for nuclear policy with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Acton said he doubts, however, that Beijing will go along with this. “In practice what I think is going to happen is that [the Security Council is] going to add more names to the list of people that are sanctioned.”
The best course for the international community is to focus on preventing North Korea from spreading its nuclear and missile know-how, according to Acton. “At the end of the day technical solutions to proliferation get you so far. You can only monitor so much.”
He called for China to clearly spell out to the North Korean leadership just what consequences await them if the regime engages in further weapons dealings abroad. Beijing should “spell out proliferation red lines.”
“You might get China to threaten a real cutoff of trade,” Acton said.