Pedestrians pass a television displaying a report of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the recent missile launch. Tokyo, Japan, February 7, 2016. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images)

Pedestrians pass a television displaying a report of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the recent missile launch. Tokyo, Japan, February 7, 2016. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images)

International responses to North Korea’s nuclear and satellite/missile tests of recent weeks have taken on a highly ritualized nature: test, outrage, condemnation, test again, escalation, de-escalation, and return to an ever-changing new normal. Three important questions are being asked: What is the relationship of the satellite test to the country’s missile and nuclear programs; what are the motives; and what is to be done in response?

Already this week, Japan and South Korea have imposed new sanctions, while the United States has passed “secondary” sanctions legislation, potentially targeting third parties such as Chinese firms doing business with North Korea. The question of how to get Beijing to act on Pyongyang’s actions remains more complicated than it appears, however. While China’s fundamental view of the North Korean situation has not changed—that resolution depends on the US and a return to the Six Party Talks—Beijing is facing new constraints. First, it is in the embarrassing situation of having to do at least something at the United Nations Security Council, given past resolutions Beijing itself has shaped. Second, international tolerance is declining not only for North Korea but for Chinese even-handedness. This makes the pursuit of secondary sanctions and even military options, such as deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missiles, more likely.

Read more