Will North Korea’s latest rocket launch result in tougher sanctions?

Will North Korea’s latest rocket launch result in tougher sanctions?

North Korea’s February 7th launch of a satellite-equipped rocket may appear to be just another chapter in the series of antagonistic taken by the rogue regime in recent months — but the act represents heightened stakes and new potential for meaningful response to finally materialize.

Yesterday, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) once again defied international law and conducted its sixth long-range rocket launch.

Although a press release from the DPRK’s National Aerospace Development Administration states that the country was “legitimately exercising the right to use space for independent and peaceful purposes,” the launch utilized ballistic missile technology at the core North Korea’s nuclear weapon delivery systems. The United States and South Korea, among other nations, have recognized the launch as a veiled military test, and the UN Security Council has condemned it as representative of the “clear threat to international peace and security” posed by the DPRK.

These sentiments may, on the surface, appear to be yet another hollow condemnation from the international community, following only the latest installment of North Korean defiance through publicized nuclear-related tests, after which no concrete global response will actually materialize. However, signals in the international undercurrent suggest that, in the context of Pyongyang’s January nuclear test, the DPRK rocket launch has finally catalyzed recognizable change in the calculus of major powers. The change presents both the opportunity for more substantive action against North Korea as well as the exacerbation of long-standing risks thus far avoided by inaction.

Accelerated North Korean nuclear program

It is currently unclear the degree to which Sunday’s ballistic missile launch demonstrated a technological advance in comparison to North Korea’s previous satellite send-off in 2012, although the rocket appears to have once again successfully delivered the satellite into orbit.

Regardless of the precise extent of the DPRK’s nuclear capability, it is clear that North Korea is accelerating the development of its nuclear technology, with the most recent rocket — known as the Kwangmyongsong — representing the third public demonstration of nuclear weapons-related technologies since December.

While North Korea does not yet possess the vessel re-entry capabilities required for an intercontinental ballistic missile strike, it appears the Kim regime is seeking to develop its nuclear capability faster than previously expected. Each launch has provided Pyongyang new knowledge to fine-tune its nuclear potential.

Immediately following the Kwangmyongsong launch, South Korean officials re-stated an earlier ambiguous suggestion that North Korea may be preparing for a fifth nuclear test. Judging by the current pace of launches, it would not be unreasonable for such a test to take place over the next one to three months.

Strengthened U.S.-South Korean defense ties

In light of the accelerating risk posed by the success of the Kwangmyongsong, the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) can be expected to strengthen their alliance. Washington will now endeavour to reassure Seoul of its protection in the event of a missile attack from the North.


In fact, yesterday’s launch has already begun to suggest a new phase of U.S.-ROK relations. Just hours after the North Korean rocket launch, the two nations released a joint announcement stating that formal talks regarding the U.S. deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system would resume as a result of the “nuclear… and ballistic missile threat” represented by the sum of recent launches.

While Washington and Seoul had seriously discussed deployment of THAAD systems to South Korea in 2015, overt diplomatic gestures from Beijing suggesting severe Chinese opposition ultimately ended consideration of deployment of THAAD. Given their regional proximity, China fears THAAD deployment in South Korea because it hypothetically degrades Chinese missile capability all the same.

With China being South Korea’s biggest trading partner, Seoul retracted its earlier bid for THAAD deployment out of concern for the economic consequences that would follow. After yesterday’s launch, the chances of the ROK securing THAAD deployment in 2016 are now quite likely — and the risk of Seoul derailing economic relations with China has increased in tandem.

A crossroads for China

At the same time, the Kwangmyongsong launch may also stimulate cooperation among the UN Security Council (UNSC) to enforce sanctions that would prevent future DPRK provocations.

Imposing nonproliferation sanctions on North Korea has been a long-standing discussion among the UNSC, but the debates have consistently failed to elicit a common understanding — primarily as a result of China’s repeated refusal to back any kind of meaningful sanctions regime or seriously enforce those already in place.

From the Chinese perspective, the DPRK is so fragile that the imposition of sanctions risks the collapse of the entire state. While this would have significant consequences for all states at the negotiating table, it would likely have one of the greatest negative impacts of China.

For one, collapse risks bringing U.S. troops into Pyongyang — and thus near the Chinese border — for a prolonged period to stabilize country, in turn creating a variety of likely conflict scenarios. It also would almost certainly ignite a massive influx of North Korean refugees, for whom China would be assumed largely responsible. These risks will remain clear influences on China as it now determines its post-rocket launch policy towards the DPRK.

The fact that the United States and other UNSC members were unable to forge cooperation with China in the aftermath of Pyongyang’s nuclear test in January suggests that Beijing may continue to weigh these risks more heavily than any benefit sanctions might provide. Yet, the shifting security environment presented by yesterday’s launch has also fortified the incentives for China to finally take more aggressive measures against the Kim regime.

Reinitiated talks over U.S.-ROK THAAD deployment may naturally begin to edge China towards the negotiating table, where China might request a cessation of missile defense talks in exchange for cooperation on UN sanctions against North Korea. More so, even if the prospect of THAAD systems coming to Seoul does not create this effect, Washington might opt to utilize it as leverage in bringing China into line with the rest of the Security Council.

In addition, China also has begun to risk serious damage to its emerging international image as a regional leader through its ignoral of North Korean aggression, and Beijing has more control and influence to lose with a nuclear armed North Korea as its neighbor than most of the Western advocates for sanctions. These two emerging factors suggest that China may begin to cooperate in the upcoming UNSC discussions on tougher sanctions.

For the time being, Chinese President Xi Jinping has agreed that an “impactful UN Security Council resolution” is needed in response to yesterday’s launch from Pyongyang, though whether this actually entails concrete economic sanctions is unclear.

If China does begin to shift its policy, sanctions can be expected to be at least initially moderate in order to temper the risk of North Korean instability. Though this may seem underwhelming, it is important to note that even mild sanctions would represent a significant shift in the overall outlook for international cooperation towards neutralizing North Korea.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Ian Armstrong

Ian Armstrong is Commissioning Editor and Senior Analyst at GRI. He also serves as the Geostrategy and Diplomacy Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Previously, Ian assisted in research at Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, Scottish Parliament, and Hudson Institute's Center for Political-Military Analysis, where he has focused on non-proliferation and international energy. Ian's analysis has been featured at prominent outlets such as Huffington Post, Business Insider, Foreign Policy Association, CBS News, and RealClearEnergy.