North Korea’s decision last Monday to launch four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan has been denounced by foreign leaders. The missiles, fired from the Tongchang-ri region near China, travelled more than 950 km; three landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, labelled the launches as “an extremely dangerous action.”
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said: “We urge North Korea to stop its provocative actions, which threaten international peace and security. North Korea should instead re-engage with the international community and take credible, concrete steps to prioritize the well-being of its own people instead of the illegal pursuit of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”
The United States and Japan have both requested an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. Reaction in the region has also been strong as South Korea indicated it would deploy advanced missile defences despite opposition from China and Russia.
North Korea’s continued testing of ballistic missiles is challenging an international community that hopes Pyongyang will eventually curb its appetite for weapons of mass destruction. Leader Kim Jong-un, however, seems determined to deploy these systems to counter international pressure.
Experts disagree on when the DPRK will be able to accurately deliver an inter-continental ballistic missile. Some suggest a year or two, while others believe it will be much longer. Regardless, when the DPRK eventually proves it can deliver an ICBM accurately, it will have to overcome the challenge of miniaturizing a nuclear warhead, something experts don’t believe they are capable of now.
North Korea is clearly moving in one direction. It intends to build an ICBM capable of hitting the United States. In early 2016, Kim Jong-un indicated that North Korea was moving its military strategy to one of “pre-emptive attack.” This shocked the international community where it was thought sanctions were working to slow North Korea’s missile program. This week’s firings show sanctions directed at the regime are not working.
The situation in the Korean peninsula is testing the patience and support of China, North Korea’s long-time ally in the region. North Korea provides a strategic buffer between the United States and its ally, South Korea. But as China continues its economic reforms, it needs strong bilateral and multilateral relationships with countries opposed to North Korea’s provocative behavior.
This long-term balancing act by Beijing likely will be untenable in the future.
Chinese president Xi Jinping understands that his country’s support of North Korea needs to change if it wants to be an economic leader in the world. But many analysts now believe China is incapable of swaying Pyongyang, particularly with North Korea’s maturing nuclear program. China’s window of influence may be closed permanently.
Despite significant differences between the US and China over Taiwan, the South China Sea, human rights, and climate change, the two global giants should cooperate on the North Korean problem. The window of opportunity is closing and time is running out.
If Pyongyang continues its missile-development program it is highly likely it will have an ICBM capable of carrying nuclear warheads to international targets within 10 years.
President Trump and his administration have publicly scolded Beijing on a variety of topics, mostly centred on Beijing’s trade practices. But a nuclear-armed North Korea in five to 10 years is a far greater threat than any economic squabbles.
If the North Korean regime began to fail, it is not too far-fetched to believe its leadership would fire a nuclear warhead in the name of nationalism to preserve the regime.
This apocalypse is coming unless, of course, Beijing and Washington work together to force North Korea to dismantle its nuclear and missile programs. Doing so would send Pyongyang a clear message that Beijing and Washington are allies on this issue.