The Latest Missile Test



The last round of North Korean missile tests represent the most serious military provocations that the country has undertaken since the January nuclear test and February satellite launch.

The challenge is not only the continued development of North Korean capabilities and their effect on strategic stability; the real issues center more and more on the triangular relations between the US, South Korea and China, the faltering sanctions regime and mounting tensions over THAAD deployment.

The missile story is in fact several stories, all of which point to increasing capabilities:

  • The elusive Musudan or Hwasang 10 is an intermediate-range ballistic missile based on a Soviet submarine-launched ballistic missile, the SS-N-6. In theory, the missile has a range of up to 4000 kilometers, but with the standard tradeoff with payload. It probably couldn’t deliver much at “scare” ranges such as Guam (3150 k or so) and the quality of its guidance systems, and thus accuracy, are unknown. But the missile generates a blunt, if limited, second-strike capability by being road mobile and in these recent tests the regime did not hesitate to note that the missile was a delivery platform for its nuclear weapons.
  • The regime has been testing this missile at an accelerating rate. Two failed tests in April and another in May had analysts such as John Schilling at 38North scratching their heads at a pace of testing that seemed unlikely to yield much learning. But on June 22, two were tested at the same time. Although the flight paths were short, the overwrought yet at the same time quite technical KCTV coverage suggested that the missiles reached their maximum altitude and analysts deemed them likely successes; the news footage is worth watching for its shots of a visibly overjoyed Kim Jong Un surrounded by military personnel at the launch site. The domestic motivation for the program should never be downplayed.
  • Another speculation about the limited June flight path was the risk of overflying Japan and even of the missile being shot down (again, Schilling at 38North). But in the successful August 3 test—as in June, with two missiles fired at the same time—the regime pushed the edge of the envelope. According to the Japanese Defense Ministry, the missile flew around 1,000 kilometers and landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone 250 km west of the Oga Peninsula in Akita Prefecture.
  • These tests come on top of what appeared to be a failed submarine-launched ballistic missile test in June (or a test from a submersible platform for theatric effect) and the construction of a significant submarine base picked up by Jane's and others in satellite imagery; again, the theme is achieving a second-strike capability.

Although the development of North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities is a significant worry in its own right, the real strategic challenges come in the complex relations between China, the United States and the two Koreas. I am not strongly enthusiastic about THAAD; it is an extraordinarily expensive system that provides limited protection for South Korea—virtually none for Seoul—and complicates the diplomacy on the peninsula. But North Korea—and China—just keep making the case easier and easier for THAAD advocates. In an extended and thoughtful defense of THAAD at NKNews, Daniel Pinkston concisely states the risks that arise, including most importantly from North Korean misperception: “the survivability of U.S. and ROK military facilities in the middle and southern part of the country is critical for the execution of a counter-strike against a North Korean attack. Without that survivability, deterrence would be undermined and the leadership in Pyongyang might decide that military adventurism would further its strategic goals.” The US has plenty of other tools, both conventional and nuclear, to assure the deterrent. But North Korea might believe it has strategic advantages which it doesn’t.

But what is devilishly clever about the North Korean missile program is the way it has thrown sand in the gears of both China-US and China-South Korea relations. I take the Chinese at their word that they favor a denuclearized North Korea. But that is a pious wish we all share; the question is what to do about it. North Korea has learned through decades of playing this game that ratcheting up pressures on the peninsula generates South Korean and American responses that—from sheer geographic proximity—look threatening to China. Put differently, North Korea has succeeded in forcing China to take sides, and the choice does not even appear close; the tilt toward Pyongyang seems to be in full gear.

China part

Ambassador Rice had a series of very constructive, candid and productive meetings last week in Beijing with State Councilor Yang Jiechi, General Fan Changlong, Secretary Meng Jianzhu, and President Xi Jinping. It was brought up in the Xinhua [New China News Agency] report about Ambassador Rice's meeting with Fan Changlong, and Fan was said to have said that deployment of THAAD would affect strategic trust between the U.S. and China.

The diplomatic trouble that North Korea has managed to create is manifold. At the UN, Chinese Ambassador Liu Jieyi repeated Beijing’s mantra: that nothing should be done to exacerbate tensions on the Korean Peninsula, with THAAD clearly in the sites. But as Samantha Power shot back quite rightly: "any notion that there's some predicate by anybody other than Kim Jong Un and the DPRK (North Korea) regime is not grounded in reality…"

But debating points is not relevant; here is just some of the mischief that North Korea has generated. In South Korea, the tests naturally bolster the rationale for THAAD deployment. In Japan, the Abe government is considering an open-ended intercept order. Nor is this likely an idle threat: Tomomi Inada, Japan’s new defense minister, holds hawkish views that make the threat credible.

But the real damage is to US-China and South Korea-China cooperation on the North Korean issue. In one of the more outrageous statements to come out of the crisis, Dan Pinkston’s piece points us to a statement by a retired Chinese admiral Yin Zhuo that THAAD batteries would be the first PLA target were a war to break out. At the diplomatic level, Russia and China have cooperated in issuing a statement opposing THAAD deployment, and a readout of Susan Rice’s visit to Beijing suggests that it was a recurrent issue in her discussions with the top Chinese leadership.

But even more troubling is the willingness of China to throw its economic weight around vis-à-vis South Korea—rather than North Korea—on the issue. It is increasingly clear that the sanctions regime is faltering, as China shows little appetite for serious implementation of UNSC 2270. Rather, it appears that China is turning against the South. As always, the measures are subtle: the Korea International Trade Association has identified a number of non-tariff barriers that China has in play and has openly expressed concern about how such a list may be expanded. The Wall Street Journal has a long piece on how K-pop entertainers appear to be facing restraints on their ability to perform in China.

But to me, one of the most telling measures is purely domestic: an apparent decision to restrict anti-Kim Jong Un statements on social media, or at least those that openly ridicule the leader. Of course, China has frequently limited discussion on sensitive topics such as Taiwan, but recently the social media environment on North Korea has been pretty free-wheeling.  

It is easy to backseat drive; my preference would have been for a more extended discussion of the THAAD deployment with China and Russia and perhaps even some efforts to cooperate on the issue. But the game being played by North Korea is so transparent it’s still a surprise that Beijing and Moscow are being sucked in. Nonetheless, Samantha Powers bears reiterating: the problem is North Korea. If Beijing wants to “reduce tensions on the peninsula,” all it has to do is to work with the other five parties on a strategy to get North Korea to cease and desist in its weapons and missile programs and come back to the bargaining table. 

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