Just how threatening is N. Korea’s latest test?

Victoria University's Dr Van Jackson answers five questions about what North Korea's latest, and most dangerous, missile launch might mean for the rest of the world

North Korea’s state media announced on Tuesday that it had carried out a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) — a long-range guided missile primarily designed for nuclear weapons delivery.

North Korea said “Hwasong 14” reached 2800km above Earth and flew 933km—longer and higher than previous tests—before landing in the sea. Veteran North Korean state television announcer Ri Chun-hee said the missile was capable of reaching “any place in the world”. Japanese officials confirmed it landed off the coast of Japan.

United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described it as “a new escalation of threat” and called for global action to stop the threat. China and Russia issued a joint statement condemning the test. They called on North Korea, South Korea and the US to sign up to a Chinese de-escalation plan.

How significant is this missile launch?

The July 4 launch is the latest data point on a trend line that dates back to the 1990s. North Korea long ago made the decision that its survival demands not only a nuclear weapons arsenal, but miniaturised nuclear warheads that can strike at US bases and the US homeland.

The most recent launch is not the first ICBM North Korea has test-launched, but it has shown the most progress. We’ve known for some time that North Korea wants to be able to strike anywhere in the continental US, but the community of Korea watchers and nuclear security wonks have disagreed about how long it would take before North Korea could do so. The recent test suggests they are nearly there.

Is there anything significant about the timing?

Probably not, but you never know. For more than a decade, US officials have expected North Korean provocations on key US or North Korean holidays, but such activity has only coincided with celebratory dates on a handful of occasions, making it statistically unlikely. If the missile launch were conducted a day later, the reaction would be the same.

What has been interesting in terms of the international reaction so far?

For years, I’ve been concerned about the seeming complacency of the international community about North Korea’s nuclear development. It’s not like China, where they use peaceful rhetoric and then implement assertive policy positions on strategic issues. North Korea has been quite vocal it wants to be able to wage a nuclear war against the world — and especially the US. But it’s only in the last 12 months or so that the international community has paid much attention.

If we were going to impose crippling sanctions or attempt preventive bombing, for instance, the time to do it would have been well before it had nuclear-capable missiles, not after. Similarly, if we really wanted diplomacy and concessions packages to work, the window with the greatest odds of success would obviously be before they became a de facto nuclear weapons state, not after. The US has largely had the “international lead” on North Korea responses historically, but avoiding collective responsibility doesn’t help the current situation.

How might this affect the US-China dynamic?

Crisis stability between China and the US is actually quite robust, although it could be undermined by brash or deeply threatening actions involving North Korea. And while Sino-US relations are going downhill at the moment, that’s to be expected; the historical mean of Sino-US relations has involved a mix of competition and cooperation. The Trump administration is now continuing that tradition. The danger is that nowhere in the world, other than the Korean Peninsula, do Chinese and US interests clash so irreducibly. A stable Korean Peninsula is the most reliable means of assuring a stable Sino-US relationship.

What might happen next?

There’s nothing to be done here; there are no good options. Sanctions are useful for censure, but ineffectual for purposes of coercion. China will not allow North Korea to become too desperate or collapse, which puts a natural limit on how much China will accommodate US demands. And North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons programme under any plausible circumstances. So nothing much will change in the coming days and months unless:

- The US attacks

- The US imposes secondary sanctions on Chinese firms operating in North Korea, which could destabilise Sino-US relations

- The US pivots its North Korea policy away from denuclearisation and figures out how to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea

Those are all terrible options, but they are the only meaningful alternatives to the currently dangerous status quo.

* This article was first published in Bulletin, an online magazine of news and opinions from the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

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