North Korea missile test reminds world of Asia’s powder keg

With the war in Ukraine and Russia’s threats to use tactical nuclear weapons, it was easy to lose sight of the growing threat North Korea posed to peace in Asia.

But the reclusive state caught the world’s attention again on Tuesday when it fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile over Japan for the first time since 2017, prompting Japanese orders to seek shelter in two northern prefectures. The US and South Korea responded by sending warplanes on a bombing exercise on an uninhabited island in the Yellow Sea, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

The North Korean missile that landed in the Pacific Ocean marked the nation’s fifth round of weapons tests in 10 days. Its launch came a month after Pyongyang declared itself a nuclear-armed state with the right to launch a pre-emptive strike, amid mounting uncertainty for dictator Kim Jong-un.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is now more dangerous than ever, a point South Korean and American officials are warning about, Pyongyang will underscore in a few weeks as it conducts its first nuclear test in five years in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

In a region once dominated by trade, the provocations are fueling growing unrest in Asia as geopolitical tensions mount between two blocs: China, Russia and North Korea on one side and the US, Japan and South Korea on the other.

At the root of this tension lies the challenge posed by China’s growing military power and assertiveness on the world stage – which was loudly displayed in August with such virtual Chinese war games blocked Taiwan to protest House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the self-governing island.

China’s aggressive stance has emboldened North Korea and pushed Tokyo and Seoul deeper under Washington’s security umbrella, analysts say.

Russia has also helped by granting Pyongyang protection from the UN Security Council and buying millions of North Korean missiles and artillery shells to replenish depleted stocks after months of fighting in Ukraine, according to a US intelligence finding released last month.

The latest two rounds of North Korea’s missile tests are believed to have been in response to Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to South Korea on Thursday, during which she reiterated Washington’s “ironclad” security promises to its allies in Asia and anti-submarine drills on the east coast the Korean peninsula on Friday by the US, Japanese and South Korean navies.

These drills follow joint drills by US and South Korean forces in August, the largest the two countries have held in years and which Pyongyang called an invasion rehearsal.

US Army soldier at the border between North and South Korea

A US Army soldier in the South Korean village of Panmunjom on the border with North Korea on Tuesday.

(Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)

Strengthening military ties between the US and its Asian allies comes as Kim and his country grapple with deeper international isolation. A 2018 summit with former President Trump did little to change North Korea’s pariah status. Trade with its key partner China has been hampered by the pandemic and chronic food shortages have been exacerbated.

With options dwindling, experts say Kim likely took cues from Russian President Vladimir Putin in attempting to use nuclear saber-rattling to garner attention and achieve his goals — namely, recognition as a legitimate nuclear-armed state that shouldn’t be sanctioned.

Tuesday’s launch was fitting, said Daniel Sneider, an associate professor of East Asian Studies at Stanford University, who noted that the rocket used appeared to have no new technical capabilities and was likely designed to raise international alarms.

“It’s the North Koreans who are desperate for attention,” Sneider said. “You got everyone’s attention, didn’t you?”

What makes the situation in the region more tense than in recent years is the deteriorating relationship between China and the United States. Previously, Washington could sometimes count on Beijing to keep Pyongyang in check. That moderating force is now gone, along with a South Korean government poised to make concessions to North Korea to ease tensions.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who has failed to get Pyongyang to denuclearize in exchange for help rebuilding its economy, has rebuked the North’s missile tests and warned of a “determined, overwhelming response” to a nuclear strike.

“The Yoon government refuses to appease Pyongyang and is more willing than its predecessor to increase security cooperation with Washington and Tokyo,” said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “The problem is that China is doing less to contain North Korea and more to enable North Korea, while the Kim regime has mistakenly convinced itself that nuclear weapons can force Seoul into submission.”

North Korea has between 40 and 50 nuclear warheads, making it the smallest arsenal of the world’s nine nuclear-armed states the latest data from the Arms Control Assn.

That doesn’t make the country any less dangerous. On September 9, the 74th anniversary of the founding of the state, Kim announced that North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons program and has the right to strike first.

North Korea’s increasingly bellicose stance may well have an impact on one of Japan’s most contentious domestic issues: remilitarization.

The sound of air raid sirens and scenes of people crouching as Pyongyang’s missile sped over Japan on Tuesday likely reinforces the case for higher defense spending, experts say.

Japan’s sense of vulnerability has been compounded this year by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a troubled northern neighbor; the assassination in July of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a pro-rearmament advocate; and China’s military drills around Taiwan, which have included landing missiles near Japanese waters.

Man looks at TV screen in Seoul train station

A South Korean news program reports on North Korea’s recent missile launch.

(Lee Jin-man / Associated Press)

“Today’s North Korean missile will strengthen the arguments of those who argue for an increase in Japan’s defense capabilities,” said Robert Ward, Japan chair at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Of course, a key variable is public support for such changes. This has increased recently, indicating a growing awareness of the intensity of security threats to Japan.”

Some experts say the missile was less about intimidating Japan and more about sending a message to the US condemning the launch as “dangerous and reckless.” the projectile, probably a Hwasong-12 which traveled 2,800 miles could easily have reached the US Territory of Guam. Its northerly path also indicated a course toward Hawaii.

“It was certainly a provocative action. Japan didn’t like it, but that doesn’t mean the target was Japan,” said Narushige Michishita, executive vice president and professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

The spate of missile launches follows a playbook from 2006, Michishita said, when North Korea used a series of tests to force US officials back to the negotiating table after Washington imposed economic sanctions the year before.

Similarly, Tuesday’s missile launch comes about a month before the U.S. midterm elections, which could increase pressure on the Biden administration to address North Korea’s actions.

“Basically, North Korea seems to be sending a message that your North Korea policy is failing,” Michishita said, “and if you want to avoid criticism or further deterioration, you need to start thinking about alternative policies.”

Pierson reported from Singapore and Yang from Taipei, Taiwan. North Korea missile test reminds world of Asia’s powder keg

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