How North Korea’s Nuclear Test Puts the Security Council in a Bind

North Korea has done it again.

So far, there is little we know about this latest nuclear test. Chances are, Pyongyang was full of bluster when it claimed this to be a powerful hydrogen bomb. Most analysts believe this was a conventional atom bomb. But that’s still terrible! And also a flagrant contravention of international norms against the testing of nuclear weapons.

In a brief statement to the press ahead of an emergency security council meeting, Ban Ki Moon condemned the test unequivocally, calling it “profoundly destabilizing to regional security” and in violation of numerous Security Council resolutions.

We have seen this movie before.

As in 2006, 2009, and 2013, when North Korea last tested a nuclear weapon, the Security Council will craft a response. The initial meeting today is likely to yield no significant outcome. If anything the Council will issue a “Presidential Statement” which is a general demonstration of Security Council unity, but not a legally binding resolution. The resolution will come later. Perhaps in a week or two after more information is known about this specific detonation; and after diplomats from the Permanent Five members of the Council figure out just exactly how much and how far to further squeeze Pyongyang.

Since its first nuclear test in 2006, North Korea has been placed under four different sets of sanctions. Three of those sanctions resolutions occurred shortly after previous nuclear tests, and one after North Korea launched a satellite into space in 2012. The resolutions passed since 2009 have been considerably stronger and give all UN member states authority to interdict suspicious shipments from North Korea. But apparently even this ever tightening squeeze on North Korea, while slowing the development of its nuclear program, has not had the intended consequence of dissuading Pyongyang from its nuclear ambitions.

So, the key question going into this latest fracas is: What else can the Security Council do? The low hanging fruit is to simply expand existing sanctions. Last February, a panel of experts dispatched by the UNSC to monitor the North Korea sanctions offered some recommendations for additional individuals and entities that should be sanctioned.  Those new measures could probably be easily passed. But it is unclear that marginally expanding sanctions will compel Pyongyang in any meaningful way.

To further complicate matters, the one veto-wielding Security Council member with the most at stake here–China–is in a bind. China is by far the most important trading partner for North Korea. And Chinese officials seem completely exasperated  by Pyongyang’s erratic and provocative behavior. Yet China’s overarching concern is to prevent the total collapse of North Korea, which could create a regional humanitarian crisis they would rather avoid. It also could lead to unification with the South, which would put a key American ally right on China’s doorstep.

So, on the one hand China is loathe to enact any sweeping sanctions that could lead to state collapse. But it also has a competing interest in ending Pyongyang’s provocations.

Therein lies the challenge for diplomats at the Security Council in the coming week: can they find a way to at once dissuade North Korea from pursing its nuclear program, while satisfying Beijing’s need to keep things more or less stable along its northeastern border?

So far, that formula has been out of reach.