N Korea’s latest missile salvo exposes US impotence
Kim Jong Un Climbs Escalation Ladder With Blast Over Japan, Underscoring Urgent Need For A US-Japan-South Korea Joint Missile Defense System
SEOUL – “What is to be done?” is the plaintive cry likely being sounded in the corridors of power in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington following Pyongyang’s latest ballistic missile test on October 4.
Given that North Korea’s missile ascended high over Japan – the first such trajectory since 2017 – the question is particularly stark. And with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un clearly climbing the rungs of a calculated escalation ladder, there are no easy answers.
North Korea’s defiance of UN Security Council resolutions that ostensibly bar it from possessing ballistic missile technologies has again glaringly exposed the impotence of the international community – most especially the US, and its key East Asian allies, Japan and South Korea – to rein in its weapons programs.
This morning’s test, which hefted an intermediate-range ballistic missile outside the earth’s atmosphere for a range of 4,600 kilometers, marked the first time since 2017 that a North Korean missile’s flight path carried it over Japan.
But it is just the latest in a series of tests of tactical missiles, air defense missiles, cruise missiles, and various ranges of ballistic missiles that have made 2022 the busiest year ever for North Korea’s rocket men.
Yet if Seoul, Tokyo and Washington are being stress-tested, Beijing – on the eve of a critical Communist Party Congress – may also be in the firing line for blowback: Should Kim continue to raise the level of his provocations, the US and its Northeast Asian allies might be compelled to begin cooperation on a trilateral missile defense system.
Even if designed to defend against North Korea, any such system would have major consequences for China’s own deterrent. Given China’s sensitivity toward an increased US footprint in the region, including through the deployment of THAAD, the possibility of a US-Japan-South Korea defense system might just compel Beijing to act towards its troublesome client.
No easy solutions
As per customary practice, both Japan and South Korea convened their national security bodies and issued angry rhetoric after today’s launch.
“North Korea’s series of actions, including its repeated ballistic missile launches, threatens the peace and security of Japan, the region, and the international community, and poses a serious challenge to the entire international community, including Japan,” Japan’s top government spokesperson, Hirokazu Matsuno, told a news conference. For his part South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol warned of a “resolute” response. “
Though a series of anti-submarine drills involving the US aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and South Korean and Japanese forces recently ended, some kind of retaliatory drills is possible. But beyond that, the allies’ options are limited.
There is little chance of any unified multilateral response in the UN Security Council. In May, China and Russia vetoed a US-proposed intensification of sanctions on North Korea – a move that certain analysts reckon has “knee-capped” the UNSC.
This is not, of course, to suggest that prior UNSC sanctions halted North Korea’s missile or nuclear programs. In addition to its endless schedule of missile tests, North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests since 2006 – and there are concerns of another soon to come.
It is important to clearly report that the missile “flew over Japan,” which may be misleading. According to the Japanese government, today’s test flew 1,000 kilometers above the earth’s surface.
By comparison, Mount Everest is less than 9 kilometers high, so no Japanese hats were blown off, nor were any rooftops skimmed. Indeed, the missile, on most of its track beyond the earth’s atmosphere, was invisible to the naked eye.
Even so, this did not stop some people from reportedly taking cover.
There are fears in Japan that parts of the device – a booster stage, perhaps – could plummet to earth and land upon unlucky citizens below. That fear was the ostensible reason given for Japan abandoning a US-made Aegis Ashore missile defense system in June 2020.
Although Japan maintains Aegis missiles on destroyers, its counter-missile strategy has been unclear since. Some are urging Tokyo to adopt a counterstrike – or even pre-emptive strike – doctrine.
Tokyo has not yet responded to North Korean missile tests over its geography with countermeasures.
On the one hand, it is far from clear that Japan possesses the capability to “shoot down” ballistic missiles and a failed attempt to do so would send a worrying signal of military impotence. Another factor is that the country is a signatory to international treaties that obviate the military use of space.
Kim on an escalation ladder
For Pyongyang, diplomatic dalliances with Washington and Seoul have essentially been frozen since the failure of a 2019 North Korea-US summit in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Amid this lack of engagement, arms tests represent a largely risk-free political option for the regime to display national muscle and boost the pride of its citizenry while raising a political finger to its adversaries in the wider world.
But at a time when a real kinetic missile war – the world’s largest – is raging in Ukraine, missile tests offer “diminishing returns” in terms of “domestic political value and international signaling” said Leif Eric Easley, who teaches international relations at Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul.
Even so, the hefting of a weapon over Japan was a “significant escalation over its recent provocations,” Easley said in an email to reporters.
Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea watcher at Seoul’s Asan Institute, agrees. “This indicates that North Korea is engaged in its typical provocation strategy of ramping up tensions and gradually raising the level with more serious actions,” he told Asia Times.
There are sound military reasons for North Korea’s ongoing testing.
The country is engaged in a regional arms race but other entrants in that marathon – China, Japan and South Korea – are all far more prosperous and thus able to afford advanced kit such as stealth fighters and aircraft carriers. In the regional space, weapons of mass destruction grant North Korea continued international relevance.
“The Kim regime is developing weapons such as tactical nuclear warheads and submarine-launched ballistic missiles as part of a long-term strategy to outrun South Korea in an arms race and drive wedges among US allies,” Easley wrote.
As it is competing with weapons of its own manufacture, rather than those acquired off-the-shelf from allies, Pyongyang needs to test technologies, personnel and systems to ensure they are workable. And if the past is prologue, there will be bigger fireworks to come.
“Last time they launched a missile over Japan, they followed up with a nuclear test a week later,” Go said. “There have been so many reports of North Korea preparing for a seventh nuke test, if you used these two pieces of the puzzle, it is likely that they will follow up with a nuclear test, possibly after China’s 20th Party Congress.”
Speculation among Pyongyangologists is that North Korea may be waiting for a reasonable interval after its key benefactor, China, completes its high-profile congress – due to open on October 16 – before going critical.
What may be different this time is that the test could be of a battlefield, tactical-sized device. That would be a game-changer for South Korean and US forces on the peninsula.
North Korea’s six nuclear tests so far have been of strategic-yield devices, with the North also testing intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver them to the US mainland.
Those assets are widely seen as deterrents to any form of US attack on North Korea. Tactical nuclear weapons are very different assets. Fired from conventional artillery and tactical rocket systems, they are designed for actual battlefield use.
Tactical nukes can wipe out dense troop concentrations; make ports, harbors and other communications nodes unusable; and by radioactive “grid-square removal” prevent enemy forces from maneuvering in strategic chunks of terrain.
From a US perspective, what can be done? Due to the nature of the North Korean state, leverage is lacking but the long-term nature of the regional game remains.
“There is not much we can do if a state decides to pursue strategic weapons development at the expense of their own people. We are not talking about a democratic state here, North Korea is definitely an outlier,” said Go. “When all reasonable ways to pressure North Korea are not working, we still have deterrence.”
At the same time, North Korea’s provocations might feasibly compel China – a critical supplier of food, fuel and medication to Pyongyang – to act, one analyst opined.
“Just like Putin’s invasion of Ukraine did more to strengthen NATO cohesion and unity than anything else in decades, there could be unanticipated blowback for China from North Korea’s actions,” Daniel Pinkston, international relations expert at Troy University told Asia Times. “That is trilateral cooperation by Japan, South Korea and the US on missile defense.”
There is little sign of that now, but Beijing was colossally infuriated by the deployment of a single US THAAD missile defense battery on South Korean soil in 2017.
In that light, any indication that the creation of a fully systemized missile defense line so close to its eastern frontiers was under serious consideration could move Beijing to exercise more leverage over Pyongyang.