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North Korean imbroglio continues

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North Korean imbroglio continues

It emerged from the latest missile launch that North Korea’s ICBM capabilities are advancing significantly and faster than expected, writes Rajaram Panda

The volatile security situation in Northeast Asia nosedived further when North Korea launched another intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) hours before midnight on July 28, the second such launch in a few weeks. The launch was from Mupyong-ni arms plant in the country’s northern Jagang province near the border with China that flew “in excess of 40 miles”, and travelled about 1,000 km before splashing down into the Sea of Japan, about 163 km from Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island.

The last missile that North Korea launched on July 4 was also an ICBM. That time too, the missile flew for 39 minutes and landed in the Sea of Japan. Experts said that the ICBM launched on July 4 may have had a range capable of reaching the US State of Alaska. It was seen as a major step towards its goal of developing nuclear-armed missiles capable of reaching the US. The latest missile appeared to extend that range significantly, covering a wide swath of the US in its range. Because of the repeat of firing such a missile, it transpires that North Korea is slowly morphing into a nuclear and missile power sooner than believed.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un boasted that his country’s ICBM can now hit the US mainland, including Los Angeles and Chicago, which are in the range of North Korean weapons. In a swift retaliatory measure, the US and South Korean forces conducted live-fire exercises immediately after the launch. South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo called for the deployment of strategic US military assets, which usually means stealth bombers and aircraft carriers as well as additional launchers of an advanced US anti-missile system.   

Understandably, Japan panicked as the missile landed in its exclusive economic zone, posing a direct threat to its security. Japan’s spokesman Yoshihide Suga lodged a strong protest with North Korea, saying its “repeated provocative acts absolutely cannot be accepted”. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo called the launch “a serious and real threat” to the security of Japan and convened an emergency meeting to respond to the launch. Though the missile did not pose a threat to North America, in order to assure its allies, the US reiterated its commitment to the defense of its allies, Japan and South Korea, if their security is breached. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and military leaders discussed military response options and reaffirmed “ironclad commitment” to the US-South Korea alliance. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in called for an emergency meeting of the National Security Council to discuss the new situation. 

Successive US administrations have been working to isolate North Korea and increasing pressure with the goal of convincing the regime to return to serious talks aimed at denuclearisation. This is also Donald Trump administration’s top priority, but so far without success. According to Jeffrey Lewis, a missile and non-proliferation expert with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, the missile’s range was about 10,000 km with the capability of reaching targets deep into the US mainland. The choice of date for the launch was significant. July 27 was a major national holiday in North Korea called Victory in the Fatherland Liberation War Day, marking the day when the armistice was signed ending the 1950-53 Korean War. The armistice is yet to be replaced with a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula technically in a state of war.

Unlike the earlier launches, which were conducted in the morning, this time the late night launch was rather rare. This time, the choice of time was to demonstrate its operational versatility with a view to prove that it is capable of conducting such launches anytime and anywhere of its choosing, thereby confusing foreign military observers to detect their activities ahead of time. The ‘Hwasong 14’ ICBM launched on July 4 was capable of reaching most of Alaska or possibly Hawaii if fired in an attacking trajectory. It was launched at a very steep angle, a technique called lofting, and reached a height of more than 2,500 km before splashing down in the ocean 930 km away.

The official KCNA said the test confirmed important features of the missile system, such as the proper separation of the warhead and controlling its movement and detonation after atmospheric re-entry. According to David Wright, a physicist and co-director of the global security programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists, if the reported missile’s maximum altitude and flight time are correct, it would have a theoretical range of at least 10,400 km, which means cities like Los Angeles, Denver or Chicago shall be in range, depending on variables such as the size and weight of the warhead that would be carried atop such a missile in an actual attack.

This unusual late-night test launch was North Korea’s 12th missile test in 2017 and second ICBM in less than a month. It cannot be disputed that North Korea has become a global menace and a threat to many nations’ security. The manner in which North Korea is making advances in its weapons programme, it would not be surprising if it tests over and over again its missile technology and nuclear weapons in the months and years to come in order to develop the most lethal systems it can.

Actually, North Korea is not only a threat to Japan, South Korea, and the US, but to China, Russia, and US allies in the Pacific and Indian Oceans as well. This is because North Korea’s missiles point in every direction, which is why all demand stronger economic sanctions against Pyongyang. Still Pyongyang remains undeterred even if it faces economic isolation with sanctions limiting access to foreign currency and its ability to conduct trade constrained. President Trump knows that China is the only country with some leverage and therefore ramping up pressure on Beijing to exert considerable economic, political, and diplomatic pressure on North Korea from going ahead with further missile tests.

China has its own compulsions not to do as Trump wants. Though it stopped importing coal from North Korea, its trade with the hermit kingdom continues, keeping its economy afloat. Trump has repeated his stance again and again that all options are on the table, including military strike. It would be in every nation’s interests if such a course is avoided because a military strike could have perilous consequences.

One thing that emerged from the latest missile launch was that North Korea’s ICBM capabilities are advancing significantly and faster than many had expected. Though North Korea is now an extremely dangerous and more dangerous as time moves, a non-military solution to the crisis cannot lose its merit. The problem is it is a crisis for the US and its allies but not for North Korea; for it, possession of nuclear weapons is the sole means of survival and therefore the ultimate deterrence, which it is unwilling to barter by any means. 

It remains unclear how North Korea shall face international condemnation as more countries start joining to seek ways to punish it for its provocations. Besides condemning North Korea for its act, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson criticised China and Russia as they “bear unique special responsibility for this growing threat to regional and global stability” as both are “the principal economic enablers” of North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programmes. He reiterated that the US seeks “peaceful denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and the end to belligerent actions by North Korea” and that it shall “never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea”, while committing to defend the allies and partners in the region.

China has resisted imposing tougher sanctions against North Korea. The US, more out of frustration, is working closely with Japan such as by freezing the assets of Chinese companies that have close ties with North Korea to press Beijing to play a part in efforts to strengthen its containment. Such efforts have yielded little result. The reluctance of both China and Russia to impose additional sanctions against North Korea is frustrating for the US and Japan.

Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who doubles as Defense Minister after Tomomi Inada resigned, declared that Japan intends to tighten cooperation with the US and other nations to strengthen pressure on the isolated nation. Tokyo intends to call upon the foreign ministers of the ASEAN nations in the meeting to be held early in August for increased cooperation. 

Japan’s fishing industry is concerned as the missile fell in Japan’s EEZ in the Sea of Japan. This is the peak of squid fishing season and fishermen are at the Sea of Japan late at night and therefore worried about the damage they could suffer on account of missile launch. Fourteen squid fishing vessels belonging to the Yamagata Prefectural Fisheries Cooperative based in Sakata were operating in the Sea of Japan off Hokkaido when the missile was fired. Though all are safe, the fear of damage exists.

A coalition of nations is building to collectively put pressure on North Korea to abandon its weapons programme. Both Britain and Australia have also joined, urging China to do more to persuade North Korea to drop its nuclear and missile programmes. The US has also urged India to scale back engagement with North Korea. India is on the defensive as it is the third largest trading partner for North Korea, though it banned all trade except food and medicines in response to the UN resolutions. A US delegation from the State Department was in New Delhi when North Korea fired the missile and this prompted the delegation to urge India to limit and scale back its diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang.       

China maintains it does not hold the key to a resolution. It has rejected the criticism and urged a halt to what it called the ‘China responsibility theory’, saying all parties need to put their weight. There lies the real problem and challenge. It clearly shows that China shall do nothing to rein in Pyongyang on the weapons issue as its own long-term strategic considerations override all other issues.

Professor (Dr) Rajaram Panda is the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University in Japan. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent those of either the ICCR or the Government of India. rajaram.panda@gmail.com




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