North Korea has sent the international community scrambling once again. Pyongyang's sixth nuclear test appeared to show substantial progress toward attaining a credible deterrent. In an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting Sept. 4, the United States called for the "strongest possible measures" to be imposed against North Korea. And it is now drafting a proposal for further sanctions, which it hopes to submit for a vote Sept. 11.
If the United States holds to this one-week timeline for a vote, it would be unprecedented in terms of speed. China and Russia, who normally try to insulate North Korea, usually assent to some level of sanctions in the wake of nuclear tests, but it ordinarily takes weeks of talks to achieve critical U.S.-China consensus. This test, though, is particularly embarrassing for China, given it came during the BRICS summit, paralleling North Korea's missile test during China's Belt and Road summit in May. However, both Russia and China have reiterated their position that sanctions alone are not a sufficient response to North Korea and that they must be accompanied by dialogue. They will continue to repeat this argument in the days and weeks to come.
If Russia and China assent to new sanctions, they are unlikely to be the sort of harsh measures touted by the United States. The last set of U.N. sanctions passed Aug. 5 avoided applying too much pressure on North Korea in a compromise with Chinese and Russian wishes. Moreover, these former sanctions are still in the implementation phase until early November — another argument Russia and China could use against the U.S. push for new swift, harsh measures.
There are a number of sectors that the United States and its allies could target for sanctions pressure. Chief among them would be North Korea's massive textile exports. Other avenues could be sanctions on supplies of crude and refined oil products, a ban on the use of North Korean labor abroad, or further financial sanctions. But even where the United States can secure U.N. sanctions, the slow-moving economic pressure would be unlikely to deter North Korea until it has achieved a credible nuclear deterrent.
The United States also has unilateral options. The U.S. Department of Treasury might opt for further secondary sanctions, namely against Chinese financial institutions. This, too, would run up against the fact that going after larger Chinese institutions could damage the U.S. economy and would not likely change China's strategy toward North Korea.
The North Korean nuclear test also provoked a flurry of military announcements. The United States confirmed Sept. 5 that it had agreed to ease limits on South Korea's ballistic missile defense measures that have been in discussion since late July. U.S. President Donald Trump also said that he would allow Japan and South Korea to buy sophisticated military equipment, likely referring to air- and sea-launched cruise missiles, targeting systems and other hardware. Such sales would take years to finalize and are distinct from the current situation with North Korea.
Other military measures, however, bear close monitoring. The United States is considering an accelerated and increased rotation of tactical and strategic assets to the Korean peninsula and to the surrounding region. This includes the dispatch of F-22 and F-35B stealth fighters to South Korea on a rotational basis. U.S. submarines and aircraft carriers will also likely be deployed in increased numbers around the Korean peninsula.
South Korea's political and diplomatic posture will also be critical here, especially given that Seoul has advocated a softer response toward Pyongyang. South Korean Minister of National Defense Song Young-moo said South Korea would lay aside dialogue and turn to punishing the North. South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the goal is still the same, but it is not the time for talks. This does not mean, however, that Moon has fully abandoned his push for more amicable relations — he has left the door open for low-level engagement even as he shores up the South's defenses.
Amid all of this, it is important to remember that North Korea will continue to test weapons according to its technical timeline. It has also not yet cast aside its threat of an "enveloping strike" on Guam. Separately, South Korea's defense ministry said Sept. 4 that North Korea appears to be preparing another missile test, possibly of an intercontinental ballistic missile.