> North Korea’s fifth nuclear test may have had an explosive yield of no more than ten kilotons, somewhat less than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, but its reverberations have set alarm bells ringing around the region, even across the Pacific. This underground test of a nuclear warhead could herald a new era of heightened brinkmanship in the Korean Peninsula. Concern stems from the claim by the North Korean government that with this detonation the regime has succeeded in miniaturising nuclear weapons to the point of attaching them to ballistic missiles. These fears are justified given the long trajectory of the North’s nuclear weapons drive. It first conducted a nuclear test in 2006, followed by three more, in 2009, 2013 and > in January this year . Each time the magnitude of the tremor associated with the test, an indicator of the energy yield, has increased, from around 4.3 in 2006 to 5.3 in 2016. In parallel, the regime is believed to have developed increasingly sophisticated delivery systems, ballistic missiles with a growing range. Earlier this week, Pyongyang test-fired three ballistic missiles, which > landed within a few hundred kilometres off Japan’s coast . U.S. officials believe it may have conducted at least 22 launches this year. Condemnation of this test by the UN did little to dampen the defiance of the North’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un. Sanctions slapped on it in March have failed to have any effect, as they have since they were periodically imposed since 1992.
With multiple reports emerging over the years of hardships faced by the North Korean population, including famine, poverty and rampant human rights violations, the latest explosive test may be an opportune moment to pause and re-examine the value of the sanctions aimed at isolating the North’s regime internationally. No globally coordinated strategies will succeed as long as Beijing plays spoiler — as it has done historically. Notwithstanding the praise from U.S. President Barack Obama for Beijing’s improved adherence to recent sanctions policies, reports from the border region with the North hint at continued trade with China. Further, this week’s test will exacerbate peninsular tensions over a plan to deploy THAAD, a U.S. missile defence system, in South Korea. Both Beijing and Moscow have protested against that proposal, even though the White House appears firm on its intent to protect its treaty ally. Even if Washington and Beijing managed to somehow set aside strategic mistrust and collaboratively squeeze Pyongyang’s weapons development agenda, the country is already believed to have a standing stock of 15 to 20 nuclear weapons, which are effectively beyond the pale of sanctions. A more sustainable approach may be to breathe life into the Six-Party Talks, and invest diplomatic currency in bringing Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. History suggests that failure to do so will only lead to one outcome.