Taking North Korea Seriously

SEOUL – We are living in dangerous and uncertain times. The United States is engaged in a bizarre and highly polarized presidential election. Its relationship with an increasingly revisionist Russia is undergoing what is essentially a “re-set” in reverse, while Russia’s revisionism is also putting pressure on a Europe already plagued by uncertainty in the wake of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union. Meanwhile, the Middle East is imploding, with wars in Syria and Yemen fueling a large-scale refugee crisis.

So overwhelmed are world leaders that many have had little time to focus on mounting tensions at the other end of the Eurasian land mass: the divided Korean Peninsula. But while the crisis in Syria may be the most urgent conflict the next US president will have to address, developments in North Korea could well turn out to be the most intractable.

Since North Korea detonated its first nuclear device a decade ago, its activity on this front has been uneven. But the regime has lately stepped up its efforts: two nuclear tests have been carried out this year, with the country’s largest-ever device detonated last month. Tests of long-range missiles have also increased, suggesting that North Korea is slowly but surely progressing toward a deliverable nuclear weapon.

As usual, the international community’s response focuses on sanctions. Indeed, the United Nations Security Council is currently discussing a new resolution in response to last month’s test. Whatever the resolution’s precise contents, it is likely that new sanctions will hurt. The question is whether they will hurt enough.