North Korea’s missile test, yesterday, was perfectly timed to help the United States “celebrate” Independence Day. This deeply provocative act has ramped up global concern over how close that country is to developing a nuclear-capable missile.
Consensus is developing around the missile fired into the Sea of Japan being a long-range Hwasong 14, a significant development on North Korea’s previous medium range Hwasong 12. The missile was estimated to have a potential range of 6700 kilometres, putting it in reach of all of Asia, and up to Darwin and the US state of Alaska.
US President Donald Trump’s tweets in reaction implied that immediate responses to the test should come from South Korea, Japan and, most notably, China. However, foreign policy in 140 characters or less is not, to date, able to substitute for a carefully crafted statement or diplomatic negotiations.
China has expressed growing annoyance over North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapon-development programs. But while it has called on North Korea to desist, it has similarly called on the US and its regional allies to pull back on their own regional military exercises.
China’s response reflects a longer and more nuanced understanding of why North Korea has pursued these joint programs. Notoriously brittle in the face of any sign of threat or pressure, talks with North Korea aimed at stopping its missile and nuclear development programs ended when both North Korea and the US began imposing counter preconditions on future negotiations.
The regional concern is, however, that North Korea is using its missile and nuclear development program to pressure its neighbors into favorable strategic and economic concessions. Few countries easily concede under threat and, with the missiles now easily capable of striking Tokyo, levels of regional alarm are at new heights.
The recent escalation of North Korea’s nuclear and missile-development programs reflects a trend towards greater confrontation rather than maintenance of the status quo. This, in turn, reflects North Korea’s internal political dynamics.
It has been clear that since Kim Jong-un ascended to North Korea’s top job he has stamped his absolute personal authority on the leadership. This has included the disposal of potential rival relatives and others in senior leadership positions thought to be less than completely loyal.
One view has it that the third generation Kim has been obliged to take such a hard line, internally and externally, to placate even more hard-line generals. It is their day job it is to hold the totalitarian state in line, possibly including its supreme leader.
In response to the missile test, the US has requested an emergency closed door session of the United Nations Security Council. This meeting will consider responses to this flagrant breach of previous Security Council resolutions requiring a halt to such tests, up to and including a military response.
The US will ask China to increase sanctions again North Korea, cutting into the supply of 90% of that country’s imports. Critically, those imports include some of the parts necessary to build the missiles and their guidance systems.
The military option will, however, remain a last resort. It would only be employed if there were definitive intelligence that North Korea had both developed a nuclear warhead capable of being fitted to its new missiles, and intended to deploy them imminently.
With or without UN Security Council support, the US could engage in a pre-emptive strike under the principle of “collective self-defence”, which is it has used to justify military engagement in Syria. Such a tactic would entail enormously high risk.
Such a pre-emptive strike would need to take out all of North Korea’s massed conventional weapons aimed at the South Korean capital, Seoul, just a short distance away, as well as its air force and command and control centres. It would also need to destroy all of North Korea’s mobile nuclear-capable missiles.
Assuming immediate nuclear arming, that would imply about eight nuclear missiles. That number would potentially rise as the pre-confrontation was drawn out.
The human cost of such a strike would be phenomenal, might not be completely effective and would probably put China onto a war footing, if not directly engage it. Despite China’s annoyance with North Korea’s strategic weapons program, it continues to regard that country as well within its sphere of strategic concern.
The military option is, therefore, very much the last and most desperate of those available. Rhetorical threats aside, no one wants current brinksmanship to end up in war.
However, for the situation to de-escalate, the United States will have to pursue a very different diplomatic strategy with China and with North Korea. It will, in effect, have to blink, to allow China to calm North Korea’s belligerence.
De-escalation is, clearly, the most desirable answer. The one immediate problem is, however, that Trump’s bellicose style does not sit easily with stepping back. This is not assisted by semi-intelligible tweets that struggle to adequately convey the necessary and nuanced subtleties of international diplomacy.
*Damien Kingsbury is Deakin University’s professor of international politics