The decades-long military standoff on the Korean Peninsula is approaching a tipping point after North Korea detonated its sixth and largest nuclear weapon test and appeared to be preparing another test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. While diplomats clashed at the United Nations on Monday over whether to engage Pyongyang in negotiations or impose additional economic sanctions, Seoul is preparing for the worst. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who Donald Trump criticized on Sunday of “appeasement,” took a harder line Tuesday, planning aggressive new military exercises and saying a new agreement to eliminate the warhead weight limit for South Korean missiles would allow it to bolster its defenses in the event of an attack.
Donald J. Trump ? @realDonaldTrump
I am allowing Japan & South Korea to buy a substantially increased amount of highly sophisticated military equipment from the United States.
8:36 AM - Sep 5, 2017
Moon and Trump reportedly discussed the move on Monday, when the White House gave “in-principle approval” for South Korea to expand its military capabilities, Reuters reports. “We believe the unlimited warhead payload will be useful in responding to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats,” South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Moon Sang-gyun said in a Tuesday briefing. South Korean officials said Monday that they have seen evidence that North Korea was moving what appeared to be an I.C.B.M. toward its west coast, where North Korea has launch facilities.
The international crisis continues to escalate as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un races forward with plans to develop a nuclear weapons system capable of striking the United States and its allies in the region—part of a long-standing strategy to deter the threat of invasion or regime change. The predicament was highlighted Tuesday by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who warned that “military hysteria” could lead to a “global catastrophe,” and also took a shot at the U.S. and its allies for urging Kim to give up his only defenses. “Everyone remembers how [Saddam Hussein] ended up” when he abandoned his weapons of mass destruction, Putin said. “North Korea remembers this too.”
It’s a seemingly intractable problem for the international community, which has tried without success for decades to exert economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear program. Successive U.S. administrations have each tried and failed to encourage Kim, and his father before him, Kim Jong-il, to reconcile with South Korea. Those efforts have been thwarted in part by China, North Korea’s biggest trading partner, which has long used the rogue nation as a bargaining chip in negotiations and is loath to allow a U.S. ally to expand its power on China’s doorstep.
That calculus may have changed over the weekend, when Pyongyang detonated what appeared to have been a hydrogen bomb. North Korean state media said the underground explosion was a “perfect success in the test of a hydrogen bomb for an I.C.B.M.” The test triggered a 6.3-magnitude earthquake and is believed to have had a yield as high as 100 kilotons—about five times the power of the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945. Trump responded in a series of Sunday morning tweets, saying that North Korea’s “words and actions continue to be very hostile and dangerous to the United States.” He lashed out at both China and South Korea, adding: “North Korea is a rogue nation which has become a great threat and embarrassment to China, which is trying to help but with little success,” and “South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!” The Trump administration is pressuring members of the United Nations Security Council to cut off oil and other resources to North Korea, and has suggested stopping all trade with any country that does business with North Korea, a thinly veiled threat against China, the world’s second-largest economy. Such a policy, if enacted, would immediately spark a global economic crisis.
Donald J. Trump ? @realDonaldTrump
The United States is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea.
12:14 PM - Sep 3, 2017
China and Russia have emphasized the importance of direct talks with North Korea—including negotiating with North Korea to suspend its nuclear program in exchange for the U.S. suspending its own military exercises in the Korean Peninsula—but it’s unclear whether Trump would acquiesce to such a deal. On Monday, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley called the proposal “insulting,” countering with calls to impose harsher sanctions. Should such measures fail, the international community would be left with few good options. Many experts have suggested that a nuclear North Korea is a forgone conclusion, and a reality that the world must accept, short of launching a full-scale military attack that would almost certainly result in massive, unacceptable loss of life in Seoul, Tokyo, and other dense population centers in range of North Korean weapons.
Haley said North Korea is “begging for war,” but that the United States is circulating a new resolution for sanctions, which would go to a vote next week. “The time for half-measures in the Security Council is over,” Haley said at the emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Monday. “The time has come to exhaust all diplomatic means before it’s too late.”