US & Canada

Viewpoint: Time for heftier sticks for North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un file picture
Image caption North Korea's young leader has not shown an inclination for reform

For the second time in three months, North Korea has defied the international community: a nuclear test this week on top of a successful missile test disguised as a satellite launch in December.

North Korea's actions, while troubling, do not force a change in strategy, but they should change expectations. North Korea is what it is - and is not going to change any time soon.

Three things appear clear following this latest provocation.

First, Kim Jong-un, 14 months after taking over the reins of this "impossible state", appears firmly in charge, and he is no reformer.

Second, North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear weapons in order to enjoy normal relations with the region or the US.

It is apparent the North Koreans have internalised the lessons of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. North Korea's missiles and nuclear warheads are survival weapons to be perfected, not placed on the trading block.

Third, while North Korea has deep economic problems and is unable to feed its people, the regime does not appear to be close to collapse.

Unlike authoritarian governments elsewhere, the authority of the state is not seriously challenged.

And given China's ongoing support and political protection, Pyongyang obviously feels it can continue down this road indefinitely.

This sense of impunity is what the US and international community need to change over time. It is doable, but not easy.

Successful containment

The existing six-party process, the international mechanism to manage the North Korean problem, is based on the premise that the right balance of carrots and sticks will convince North Korea to denuclearise.

Image caption A satellite image of a North Korean nuclear test facility

But North Korea's periodic (and increasingly successful) nuclear tests and missile launches are now the regime's only real source of legitimacy and pride.

Pyongyang wants both normal relations and nuclear weapons. If it can only have one, it will keep its nukes and the perceived protection they provide.

Assuming North Korea continues on its current path, it will eventually develop a missile reliable enough and nuclear warhead small enough to put the region - and potentially the US - at risk.

However, it is highly unlikely a regime obsessed with survival is going to pull the trigger and start a conflict it will inevitably lose. North Korea is a geopolitical problem child with only one card to play. It can be successfully contained.

A greater risk is the continued proliferation of missile technology and nuclear know-how to others.

President George W Bush's administration established the Proliferation Security Initiative to minimise proliferation, and the programme has been a significant success.

The US and its allies should continue to look for ways to strengthen such international co-operation, especially given rumours of co-operation between North Korea and Iran.

If the US and international community are stuck with the status quo for the foreseeable future, the most viable option is to increase the costs to North Korea for its defiance.

One requirement is to reach an early understanding with the incoming government of Park Geun-hye in South Korea.

During last year's South Korean presidential campaign, Ms Park promised a fresh approach with new initiatives to Pyongyang. These should be put on hold.

A high-level delegation representing Ms Park met last week with US Secretary of State John Kerry and other US officials.

Policy options were undoubtedly discussed in anticipation of the North Korean test, and those need to be internalised prior to Ms Park's inauguration later this month.

'Arrest the swagger'

A high level of anxiety exists in Tokyo, where the Abe government faces provocations not just from Pyongyang but also from Beijing over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

The two issues are not connected per se, but having two simultaneous sources of regional tension complicates the ability to find common ground on either one of them.

China is undoubtedly unhappy with its client state and its young leader but has been reluctant to take meaningful action that risks instability along its border.

North Korea is a genuine economic basket case and unable to feed its people. Absent China's help, North Korea would surely collapse.

Beijing will never go along with anything big, but the question is whether it will agree to small measures, such as narrowly targeted sanctions that can send a clear message to Pyongyang's young leader.

The United Nations approved sanctions last month in response to North Korea's satellite launch.

The international community should double down on sanctions yet again, this time aimed squarely at the Kim family purse.

There are fewer ways to impact the North Korean economy than, say, Iran's, but plenty of steps remain available to more seriously squeeze the North Korean leadership.

One option is a move like the 2007 sanctions against Banco Delta Asia, which froze $25 million (£15.9m) in laundered North Korean assets. That step got Pyongyang's undivided attention.

Throwing some sand into the gears of the Kim family business does not solve the larger problem, but at least it might arrest Pyongyang's swagger.

It remains to be seen whether Pyongyang's provocative course is the new normal or just part of the learning process for a young and untested leader.

Either way, if Kim Jong-un wants to play with the grown-ups, he has to understand there are real costs for going beyond the accepted boundaries.

To get him refocused on available carrots, it is time he experienced some heftier sticks.

PJ Crowley is a former US assistant secretary of state under President Obama and is now a professor of practice and a fellow at the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication at the George Washington University.