US President Donald Trump met with military advisers to discuss response to North Korea's nuclear bomb test on September 3, 2017. Photo: Reuters

After North Korea on Sunday conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test, which it said was a hydrogen bomb for a missile, the US warned of a “massive” military response if it or its allies were threatened.

“Any threat to the United States or its territories, including Guam or our allies will be met with a massive military response, a response both effective and overwhelming,” US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said after meeting with President Donald Trump and his national security team at the White House.

“We are not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea,” Mattis said with Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at his side. “But as I said, we have many options to do so.”

Trump earlier in the day refused to rule out military action and threatened to cut off trade with any country doing business with Pyongyang. Early Monday in Seoul, South Korea’s military confirmed it had carried out missile drills in response to the North’s nuclear test.

(Click here for a graphic on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program)

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who met on the sidelines of a BRICS summit in Xiamen, China, agreed to “appropriately deal” with North Korea’s nuclear test, the Xinhua news agency reported.

Yonhap News Agency screen grab of China’s leader Xi Jinping (L) and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

Beijing remains Pyongyang’s sole major ally and both China and Russia have land borders with North Korea. China’s nuclear safety agency said it started monitoring radiation levels in its northeastern border areas on Sunday.

“The Chinese government resolutely opposes and strongly condemns this,” China’s foreign ministry said about the test.

“The Chinese government resolutely opposes and strongly condemns this,” China’s foreign ministry said about the test.

“We urge North Korea to recognise the determination of the international community to achieve a denuclearized Korean peninsula … and to return to the path of resolving conflicts through dialogue,” it said, adding that China will continue to implement UN sanctions against Pyongyang.

It was the third time Pyongyang had conducted a test just before a major diplomatic event for Beijing.

Testing China?

North Korea carried out missile tests ahead of Xi’s meeting with US President Donald Trump in Florida in April and as China prepared to host a summit in Beijing in May to discuss its signature “Belt and Road Initiative.”

Beijing insists the main targets of Pyongyang’s aggression are the US and South Korea, but Zhang Liangui, a professor of international strategic research at the Communist Party’s Central Party School, said the timing of the tests suggested there was a “China factor” at play.

Did North Korea spoil the party? Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the BRICS Summit in Xiamen, China, Sept. 4, 2017. Reuters/Wu Hong

“North Korea makes a bold move every time China has a big event,” Zhang said in a South China Morning Post report, adding that the international community had few options left to deal with Pyongyang.

“North Korea has sought to prove that sanctions don’t work and it does not want to go back to the negotiating table,” Zhang said. “Now there are only two choices left: admit that we have failed in our goal of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula or the US makes a military move.”

Russia role

Russia condemned the nuclear test, but said it was premature to discuss any new sanctions against the isolated country.

“Actions of Pyongyang that it thinks will lead to recognizing its nuclear status are unacceptable for us,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said by telephone in Xiamen. “We are still convinced that the problem of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula can be solved only through dialog.”

Zhang said that China and Russia’s different security interests would make it difficult for the two countries to achieve meaningful cooperation.

Russia’s border with North Korea is not as long as China’s, which suggests Russia could tolerate a nuclearized North Korea and may even consider it as a way to contain the US. But the impact of North Korea’s aggression could be devastating to China, Zhang said.

Lu Chao, director of the Border Studies Institute at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, said North Korea had reached the peak of its provocation with its sixth nuclear test. It was time for China to respond with even tougher measures, such as cutting oil supplies to Pyongyang, he told the South China Morning Post.

“North Korea is determined to push ahead with its plan under the mistaken belief that once it has nuclear weapons, the US will be forced to concede,” Lu said. “But the US and China will not recognise North Korea as a nuclear state.”

More sanctions?

Still, the immediate focus of the international response is expected to be tougher trade sanctions against Pyongyang, with the United Nations Security Council scheduled to meet on Monday.

Diplomats have said the council may consider banning Pyongyang’s textile exports and the country’s national airline, stop supplies of oil to the government and military, prevent North Koreans from working abroad, and slap an asset freeze and travel ban on top officials.

US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said on Sunday that he would put together a package of new sanctions.

“If countries want to do business with the United States, they obviously will be working with our allies and others to cut off North Korea economically,” Mnuchin told Fox News.

Financial markets in Asia on Monday morning reacted to the bomb test with buying of so-called safe haven assets, such as gold, sovereign bonds and the Japanese yen.

New bomb?

North Korea, which carries out its nuclear and missile programs in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions and sanctions, said on state television that the bomb test ordered by leader Kim Jong Un had been a “perfect success.”

The bomb was designed to be mounted on its newly developed intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, the North said.

The test had registered with seismic agencies as a man-made earthquake near North Korea’s nuclear test site. Japanese and South Korean officials said the tremor was about 10 times more powerful than the one picked up after North Korea’s last nuclear test a year ago.

A South Korean soldier watches a TV report on seismic activity from a suspected North Korean nuclear test on September 9, 2016. Kim Ju-sung/Yonhap via Reuters.

There was no independent confirmation that the detonation was a hydrogen bomb rather than a less powerful atomic device, but Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tokyo could not rule out such a possibility.

Experts who studied the impact of the earthquake, which the U.S. Geological Survey measured at magnitude 6.3, said there was enough strong evidence to suggest the reclusive state had either developed a hydrogen bomb or was getting very close.

Trade threat

Trump’s trade threat may be a way to pressure China, Pyongyang’s top trading partner, into doing more to contain its neighbour.

But Matthew Goodman, a trade expert at Washington’s Centre for International and Strategic Studies, said Trump’s suggestion was not viable because it would mean the United States would cut off trade with countries such as France, India, and Mexico, along with China.

“The notion of stopping ‘all trade’ with anyone who does business with North Korea is absurd,” Goodman said.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Seoul would push for strong steps to further isolate the North, including new UN sanctions. Japan also raised the prospect of further sanctions, saying curbs on North Korea’s oil trade would be on the table.

The United States has repeatedly urged China to do more to rein in its neighbour, but Beijing has lambasted the West and its allies in recent weeks for suggesting that it is solely responsible for doing so.

It has said military drills by South Korea and the United States on the Korean peninsula had done nothing to lessen tensions.

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