Amid the welter of 14 missile tests by North Korea this year, the firing of a missile over the Japanese mainland on Monday stands out as representing an unprecedented escalation, but it is not clear how the rest of the world can meaningfully provide an equally powerful response, short of military action.
The UN security council will meet on Tuesday, unified in its condemnation of Pyongyang, but China has already voted to strengthen economic sanctions to the maximum point that the UN collectively, and China specifically, would find politically tolerable.
In August, in response to North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile tests, China allowed the UN to ban North Korean exports of coal, iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore and seafood. It also prohibited countries from increasing the number of North Korean labourers working abroad, as well as bans on new joint-ventures with North Korea. Nine individuals and four entities were added to a UN blacklist, including North Korea’s primary foreign exchange bank.
These measures may yet have “a very big financial impact”, as Donald Trump tweeted at the time. But it takes a lot longer than the time it takes to send a tweet for sanctions to freeze up a nation’s economy, let alone change a dictatorial leader’s political calculus.
North Korea has been under some form of sanctions since 2006 and it has found ways to work around many measures. But the August package, already implemented by China, is slated to cut North Korea’s $3bn (£2.3bn) annual export revenue by a third.
The only further serious collective economic measure on the agenda is a ban on the export of energy to North Korea, a measure China has always opposed, saying it will destabilise the North Korean regime in unpredictably dangerous ways, as well as create a humanitarian catastrophe, sending tens of thousands of refugees pouring over the border into China.
Beijing has long said that the collapse of the North Korean regime, likely leading to the…