Kate Burrows-Jones, North America Editor for World Media
North Korea predictably set off yet another warning shot of its developing nuclear missile program. President Donald Trump gave a simple response, “I just want everybody to understand and fully know that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent.” Mr Trump was at his club, Mar-al-Lago, where he was hosting the visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe when staff brought news to their dinner table from United States Strategic Command of a “medium- or intermediate-range ballistic missile,” tracked over North Korea and into the Sea of Japan. This was North Korea’s first missile test since the new President’s inauguration.
It was predicted by the Council of Foreign Relations that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un would test the new president with a missile launch within four weeks of taking office. Unlike North Korea previous missiles, the Pukguksong-2, a road-mobile on tractor-erector-launcher units missile, is described by military analysts as a game-changers as it is powered by a solid-fuel engine – probably using ammonium perchlorate – is that the fuel is extremely stable, can be easily stored and the weapon is ready to be fired virtually immediately, making it harder to detect and neutralised before launching like liquid fuel missiles which takes much longer to move mobile fuelling wagons to fill tanks making it easier to detect by satellites before launching.
Described by North Korea State media as a surface-to-surface missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads, the PK-2. It is likely to be an upgraded version of the submarine-launched missile named Pukguksong launched last August with a shorter range of over 100 miles .
South Korea’s military said the latest missile flew about 310 miles before dropping into international waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan. North Korea said the missile made a high-altitude flight because of security worries in neighbouring countries.
If the missile was fired at a normal angle, it could have flown farther. Some analysts say its maximum range could be up to 1,870 miles (3,000 km), while others put it at 750 miles.
Either way, the missile could target South Korea and Japan, where about 80,000 U.S. troops are stationed.
The United States policy on North Korea under the Obama Administration was known as “strategic patience,” to manage it, while it continued to provoke the US and its neighbours. Obama’s last action came the last day of November 2016 when the UN Security Council resolution was passed, slashing 60% of North Korea’s critical export of coal, as well as hampering export of silver, copper, and nickel.
The latest missile test raised several questions. Was it another attention seeking exercise by Pyongyang most unusual dictatorship when it feels ignored and no longer garners headline news?
Or intimidating South Korea and at the same time moving a few steps forward in its armament programme?
Can the Trump administration and partners in the region move beyond that to solve the growing North Korea problem, especially given that the PK-2 is harder to detect until it is already fired?
North Korea is advancing a nuclear program with long-range delivery systems that threatens its neighbours and eventually could threaten the U.S. mainland. Along with a direct threat of a nuclear attack, is the risk that North Korea will transfer nuclear technology or fissile material to terrorists, to rogue states, especially in the unstable Middle East and the Levant. In 2007 Israel bombed a nuclear weapons development site in East Syria built by North Korea for the Assad regime.
Japan, has a ballistic missile defence system. It uses naval -SM-3 interceptors system, used by US Navy and European allies, to target missiles in space. It has mobile units land-based PAC-3 (Patriot Advanced Capability) radar guided missile batteries. Used by US Army and allies the missiles are the third generation of the Patriot, first tested during the 1991 Gulf war in both northern Arabia and Israel and successfully intercepted three quarters of Scud-II rockets fired by Saddam Hussein. PAC-3 missiles are more accurate and the launching vehicles more manoeuvrable as they are mounted on mobile units than lighter than those of PAC-2 and quicker in deployment to intercept incoming missiles near the ground. Japan is considering THAAD ( Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) , manufactured by Lockheed Martin Corp., which intercepts missiles terrestrially or extra-terrestrially. Much to the chagrin of China, who says a missile defence shield could be used against it, South Korea agreed to deployment THAAD on its territory. Japan and South Korea have a defence intelligence agreement. Russia also has an opinion on the missile defence systems, it doesn’t want them in Asia.
The Failed Six Party talks–China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States–commenced in 2003 to disarm North Korea and ended in 2009. A year later the U.S realised North Korea was hiding a uranium enrichment facility. Each of the six has its own concerns, but Chinese cooperation has always been the most critical component.
President Trump is already committed to provide the defence of Japan. A missile defence system negotiated under former President Obama is arriving in summer to shoot down any of North Korea’s ill intentions. That system, if robust enough, may start to push China to take bigger risks on North Korea as it is upset at the balance of power of a system in place in Japan. China may be ready to talk.
North Korea’s most important economic partner is China. To date China has been reluctant to intervene in North Korea because it does not want to risk destabilising North Korea with its population of 24 million, by initiating a spillover of refugees across their shared 870 mile border into China. The entire region would experience volatility economically and a humanitarian refugee crisis if North Korea, with a population already living in extreme poverty, were to fail. China has supported North Korea since the Korean War. China is North Korea’s critical trade partner and provider of an economic safety net. In 2006, Beijing took a disapproving tone with Pyongyang by supporting UN Security Council Resolution 1718, which imposed sanctions on Pyongyang for a nuclear test. Further resolutions followed its next test. When North Korea’s had a third nuclear test in 2013, its ambassador in Beijing was summoned to the Foreign Ministry, a public telling off in diplomatic norm. China imposed sanctions, cut energy supply, and demanded denuclearisation talks. They have also blocked Security Council Sanctions and resisted pressure to prevent North Korea from advancing its program.
North Korea exports go to China, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Brazil while imports from China, Thailand, India, Russia, and Singapore.
Among diplomatic options available to President Trump is establishing dialogue with China about the future of the Korean peninsula, that would come amidst aggressive moves by China in the South China Seas. China could initiate bilateral talks with North Korea on missile development and work with US allies South Korea and Japan. There has not been much interest or incentive for China to act, though the increasing presence of missile defence systems may be a persuasive tool.
Once North Korea is able to threaten its neighbours with a nuclear missile it is very hard to reign in their programme because the balance of power will have shifted and there is always the risk that when threatened they will use them.
Support for South Korea has long been seen as a method of reigning in the North militarily, but also economically. There have periods where South Korea has been able to build factories in the North and cross the border, though from time to time access is shut off. A South Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement has been discussed.
The United States can bring North Korea in out of the cold into the international community by offering economic access and cultural and academic exchanges. The Obama administration had a long-standing policy to keep North Korea out of international financial institutions. The U.S. could encourage North Korea by offering humanitarian aid and pressuring it to improve conditions of its people.