Any overt military action would run the risk that the North Korean regime would interpret the attack as an existential threat and respond with force that could kill millions of people on the Korean Peninsula, writes Joshy M Paul for South Asia Monitor
By Joshy M Paul
North Korea has successfully test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on July 4, with nuclear warhead capability. It came down in the Sea of Japan after 37 minutes from an altitude of 2,802 kilometres. The three-stage KN-08 missile is believed to have a range of over 8,000km and capability to reach continental America.
Pyongyang chose July 4, the US Independence Day, to conduct the missile test, as a clear signal that it has the wherewithal to threaten enemies who seek a regime change in North Korea. The test also took place before leaders from the Group of 20 (G 20) nations were due to discuss steps to rein in North Korea’s weapons programme, which it has pursued in defiance of UN Security Council sanctions, at Hamburg, Germany. Clearly this launch is a serious security issue not just for the East Asian region but also challenges the new US Trump administration
This missile launch has not only caused a direct Washington-Pyongyang confrontation, but also ruffled US-China relations, as Washington has always depended on China to contain North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes. The Trump administration has reportedly expressed frustration with China’s inability to curb North Korea’s advancing weapons programme. The President tweeted that “Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!” Although the US proclaimed that it has put pressure on China, North Korea’s top trade partner and ally, to take stern steps to cut off Pyongyang’s economic lifeline, Beijing may not impose harsh sanctions on Pyongyang.
North Korea has a robust missile programme which began with Scuds; the first batch reportedly coming via Egypt in 1976. Then it launched an indigenous missile development programme and the first versions of its own missile, called Hwasongs, were tested in 1984 with an estimated maximum range of 1,000km. Now it has various types of missile from medium to intercontinental, and a missile with capability to target the United States tipped with a nuclear warhead is considered to be Pyongyang's ultimate goal.
Kim Jong Un believes the US will eventually try to remove him from power, similar to the fate which befell Moammar Gaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The Kim family has always been on the US radar as the North’s sabre-rattling will instigate instability in the Korean Peninsula, and affect security of South Korea and Japan. Pyongyang is looking for more than they can deliver at the moment, and “could develop an indigenous missile that can reach even Seattle and carry a North Korean-built nuclear warhead before the end of Trump's first term”, said Michael Hayden, CIA Director 2006 to 2009.
The major worry about North Korea’s missile programme is its nuclear adventurism. It demonstrated its first nuclear weapon test in 2006, after withdrawal from the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003. It further conducted four more tests to increase the yield. The latest one conducted in 2016 has an explosive yield of between 10 and 30 kilotonnes, though Pyongyang claims it was of a hydrogen bomb, but experts cast doubts on the claim given the size of the explosion registered. Now it has developed a payload which can carry nuclear warheads to the US.
Until now it was a regional security concern, especially for South Korea and Japan, but North Korea has raised the bar to a higher level. Till now the major concern for the international community was whether South Korea and Japan would opt for nuclear weapon status to withstand the threat posed from North Korea, and a regional multilateral mechanism called Six Party Talks was initiated to contain the North Korean threat. Regional countries always want a diplomatic solution to the problem; a war between the US and North Korea would destabilize the entire East Asian region. The major policy was to restrain Pyongyang from taking strong action by imposing sanctions on it. However, these sanctions did not seem a success due to North Korea’s strong economic engagement with China. So the international community has focused on China to defuse the nuclear-cum-missile threat. But now it has become more of a major security issue of the United States itself.
Given the complexity of the problem no one has a clear solution to the problem. North Korea is averse to a diplomatic solution, and prefers to adopt an aggressive posture against South Korea and America. For the United States a war with North Korea would result in a catastrophic situation in the region. Perhaps a limited use of force against the regime or its nuclear facilities: an air strike on North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure or missile facilities with the political objective aim to destabilize Kim Jong Un’s quest for weapons of mass destruction, is dependent on the quality of intelligence inputs both from within and allies. But any overt military action would run the risk that the North Korean regime would interpret the attack as an existential threat and respond with force that could kill millions of people on the Korean Peninsula, and include the 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea.
Eventually, a diplomatic solution is the only option available now for the Trump administration. To do so, Washington would require support from China. However, China believes that Trump has strong anti-China moorings which include the US position over the dispute of South China Sea. So the US will have to wait patiently for Pyongyang’s next step in its confrontation with the West.
(Joshy M. Paul is Assistant Professor in International Studies, Christ University, Bengaluru. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)