In addition to 2016’s two nuclear weapons tests, Pyongyang made significant progress in its ballistic missile programs over the last year. After some initial difficulties and failures, the North’s fledgling submarine‐launched ballistic missile program scored a major success on August 24 when the missile flew around 500km after being launched from underwater. For the land‐based missile program, the most recent successful test was on September 5, when three Extended Range Scud missiles (also known as ER Scuds) were fired from a highway and flew 1000km toward the Japanese island of Hokkaido. North Korea’s joint progress on nuclear weapons technology and delivery systems represent a major threat to the stability of East Asia more broadly, and to U.S. allies South Korea and Japan in particular.
This nuclear test should spark a serious debate on the future of U.S. policy toward North Korea. Unfortunately for American policymakers, the most appealing or straightforward solutions carry risks or have proven to be ineffective.
Imposing additional sanctions against North Korea would be a knee‐jerk policy reaction with little chance of success. UN sanctions that were approved by the Security Council in early March 2016 did not prevent Pyongyang from conducting its latest nuclear test or improving its missile technology. Stricter sanctions enforcement could increase the economic pressure on the regime, but North Korea has shown a consistent ability to take tougher measures in stride. North Korea is probably the most economically and diplomatically isolated country in the world under existing sanctions. It’s difficult to see how further isolation will somehow bring Pyongyang to heel.