President Donald Trump has made no secret of his reservations about multilateral approaches to global problems. So, it is reassuring that despite this, his administration has been able to persuade the UN Security Council to take unanimous action in the face of the gathering threat to world peace posed by North Korea. Previous US administrations exercised what became known euphemistically as “strategic patience” when it came to the hermit kingdom. At this precarious moment, there is no room for more of that.
The US-drafted resolution was designed to ratchet up pressure by reducing export revenues to North Korea by a third, or $1bn. This was adopted unanimously on Saturday after gaining approval from both China and Russia, the two permanent council members who had previously resisted the imposition of fresh sanctions.
It is a necessary development. The latest intercontinental ballistic missile has brought Kim Jong Un, the Korean dictator, dangerously close to achieving his goal of being able to hit mainland America with a nuclear weapon. Along with retaliatory naval deployments to the region by the US, his bellicose posturing has escalated tensions on the Korean peninsula to “crisis point”, in the words of the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi.
The scope for a catastrophic misunderstanding between the thin-skinned US president and his maniacal North Korean counterpart is, to say the least, alarming. There are no channels of communication between the two men — or their countries — through which to de-escalate an accidental or deliberate confrontation. This contrasts with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis when Moscow and Washington worked together to avert nuclear disaster.
Only a concerted international effort has a chance of changing that and constraining Mr Kim from taking further provocative action. New measures to rein in his regime include an export ban on coal, seafood and iron ore. These fall short of previous proposals floated in Washington, which included an oil embargo, a global ban on the country’s airline and the expulsion of North Korean expat workers who bring in some $500m a year.
Nor is this the kind of sweeping embargo that persuaded Iran to contain its nuclear ambitions. It may well prove insufficient. Indeed Pyongyang has already shrugged off the threat, rebuffed Chinese efforts to bring an end to missile tests — as well as South Korean willingness to talk — and threatened retaliation against the US.
Much depends on how willing China, which as a neighbour and patron state has the greatest capacity to bring economic pressure to bear, and Russia are to enforce the resolution. Both countries paid little more than lip service to the past sanctions regime. Even some US allies were lackadaisical about enforcing it. It is partly via the gaps created — and the illicit global networks that found a way between them — that Mr Kim has been able to develop his deadly missiles. In the coming weeks, it must be made plain to him that this time it will be different.
Both Moscow and Beijing have an interest in avoiding the unilateral action threatened by Mr Trump against their own companies trading with North Korea. They also have an interest in ending the stand-off before it reignites a war on the peninsula. If there is to be any hope of that, there must be a trade-off between an effective blockade, nuclear development and detente with the US. In dealing with North Korea there are no good options. But sanctions, and the hope they will push Mr Kim back to talks, provide the best one left on offer.