North Korea’s provocative thermonuclear test is outrageous but its intention might be to force China to persuade the US to come in good faith to the negotiating table.

The outcome might be a wider security deal that erodes American influence in the Korean peninsula to the benefit of North Korea, China and, perhaps, Russia.

President Donald Trump might have little choice since he may find it difficult to create a still tougher punitive coalition to stop Kim Jong-un, judging from the few and cautious international reactions so far.

A UN Security Council meeting is expected on Monday to discuss the test and might open a path forward depending partly on how the US plays its cards.

Trump thinks that China and Russia are not doing enough to squeeze Pyongyang and South Korea is appeasing it. He said so again in tweets today.

But the Security Council does not have much space for options to turn more screws on North Korea. It is turning into a successful nuclear power despite severe sanctions for decades and meager business links with countries, other than China.

To get enough backing, the US may have to give up more than it wants in the Security Council. Many around the world may be appalled by Kim’s nuclear ambitions but none seem willing to put themselves in harm’s way to prevent him from mounting deterrence against the US.

Saturday’s nuclear explosion was claimed as thermonuclear by Pyongyang but awaits confirmation from the US, China and Russia. It caused an earth tremor that the US Geological Survey estimated at a magnitude of 6.3 but South Korea’s Meteorological Administration estimated at 5.7.

A thermonuclear explosion would have about 1,000 times the power of devastation of the atom bombs the US dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.

Major world powers reacted cautiously although they and the United Nations expressed strong disapproval.

Trump said North Korea’s actions continued to be “hostile and dangerous” while Defense Secretary James Mattis threatened “a massive military response” if Pyongyang menaces the US, its allies or Guam.

Reassuringly, when asked whether the US would attack that country, Trump responded “we’ll see”. Mattis said the US was “not looking to the total annihilation” of North Korea.

Mattis noted that the UN Security Council remained “unanimous in their commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula”.

His reference to denuclearization as the preferred outcome indicated a negotiated way out of the crisis. But it would require very firm unity among the Council’s 15 members, including China and Russia, which have veto powers.

To ensure that unity, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said he is preparing a new sanctions package “that anybody that wants to do trade or business with them (North Korea) would be prevented from doing trade or business with us.”

Making Mnuchin’s threat work would require that South Korea, China and Russia stop doing business with North Korea to avoid sanctions against them in the US. That will be a hard sell in the Security Council because France, Britain and others will be reluctant to approve potentially devastating trade upheavals.

The main damage would be to South Korean and Chinese business but Mnuchin might come to rue the day. Trying to impose such draconian punishment on any country doing business with North Korea might harm US interests in those countries, including the European Union, China and Russia.

Mattis referred to unanimity in the Security Council for July’s latest and tougher sanctions against North Korea, which were supposed to cut its export earnings of $3 billion by one-third.

But Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov said today, “The imposed sanctions have not created any positive outcome. On the contrary, the situation leaves something to be desired.”

Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping met in China today at a summit of BRICS leaders. In separate statements, China “strongly condemned” the nuclear test and Russia “absolutely” condemned it.

Peskov seemed to summarize the views of both leaders when he reported on a Putin phone call with Japan’s Shinzo Abe today, saying that “a complex settlement of the nuclear and other problems of the Korean Peninsula could be achieved solely by political and diplomatic means.”

“Vladimir Putin said the international society should avoid being overwhelmed by emotion, it should act calmly and prudently,” he noted.

French President Emmanuel Macron echoed Putin’s caution, while supporting the Mattis goal of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.

“The international community must treat this new provocation with the utmost firmness,” he said, to bring North Korea “unconditionally to the path of dialogue and to proceed to the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling of its nuclear and ballistic program.”

But pushing Kim to defer to Macron’s wishes would require strong support from China’s Xi. He will surely want a lot in return from the US and EU.

Brij Khindaria, Foreign Affairs Columnist
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