Deterrence and defiance on the Korean Peninsula

There was a collective sigh of relief as the weekend passed without incident on the Korean Peninsula — except for a failed ballistic missile launch by North Korea. There have been fears that a clash between the United States and North Korea was imminent as Pyongyang marked an important anniversary and Washington showed growing impatience with governments that flout international rules. The risk of a crisis remains high, however, and all parties must redouble efforts to find a diplomatic way to ease the steadily rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

April 15 is a singular day in North Korea. It is “the Day of the Sun,” the birthday of Kim Il Sung, founder of the modern North Korean state, who, 23 years after his death, remains the “eternal president” of the country. The day is invariably marked by celebrations: Typically a choreographed military parade that shows the world Pyongyang’s weapons, but frequently there is also some other event, such as a missile launch.

This year, there were fears that North Korea would hold its sixth nuclear weapon test on Saturday, a show of strength that would be even more provocative than usual. Observers have along anticipated such a test, believing it necessary for the weaponization of the country’s nuclear program. Consistent with that argument, there have been signs of preparations at one of the country’s nuclear test sites.

A nuclear test would pose the greatest foreign policy challenge yet for the U.S. administration of President Donald Trump. It would violate the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions, and various international laws and norms. A test is an implicit threat to North Korea’s neighbors, especially when coupled with the warning issued at Saturday’s parade by a top North Korean official that “We will respond to an all-out war with an all-out war and a nuclear war of our own.”

A nuclear explosion does not mean that a country has a nuclear weapon, however: There must be a way to use it against an enemy. That in turn requires two more things: a delivery system (such as a missile) which in turn means the nuclear device must be small enough to fit atop that device. Both are extremely hard to secure, as the record of failed North Korean missile tests makes clear.

But in his New Year’s address, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said that his country was in the “final stage” of preparations to test-launch an intercontinental ballistic missile, which could theoretically threaten the U.S. mainland. Trump responded by tweeting “It won’t happen!”

That terse reply took on new significance last week. First, the Trump administration ratcheted up the rhetoric against Pyongyang, making a very public case for China to increase pressure on North Korea to resume negotiations on its nuclear program and to stop destabilizing the region, including a warning that “if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.”

Second, Trump authorized U.S. missile strikes against Syria after the Damascus government was charged with using chemical weapons against civilians.

Third, Washington dispatched the Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and its strike group to waters off the Korean Peninsula to monitor the situation and put some muscle behind the tough talk.

Understandably, fears of a confrontation mounted. The chief concern is that both Kim Jong Un and Trump were backing themselves into corners with tough talk and posturing.

Ultimately, Pyongyang held a parade that featured a stunning display of military might. Observers are still trying to absorb the significance of what they saw. In addition to missiles known to be part of the North Korean inventory, there were previously unseen canisters that appeared to demonstrate mastery of solid fuel technology, a critical development in creating a survivable missile force. (Using solid fuel speeds up launch preparations; missiles do not have to be fueled immediately before use.) It can also be used for submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Also shown was what was believed to be a new type of ICBM being developed.

While the nuclear test did not materialize, North Korea did launch a medium-range ballistic missile Sunday morning, but it blew up almost immediately after traveling just 60 km. The launch occurred just as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence began a 10-day visit to Asia; he will stop in Seoul and Tokyo, among other capitals.

The test is a show of defiance by Pyongyang, but it is also a very visible failure — and embarrassment — for Kim. It follows a similar test failure earlier this month and is an important reminder that, for all its progress, North Korea still has a way to go before it can threaten the U.S. as its leadership claims.

The threat to Japan and South Korea is real and immediate, however — and long has been. This gap in threat perceptions among Tokyo, Seoul and Washington is the biggest danger in dealing with North Korea. All three governments must have confidence that they will act — or not — in ways that do not undercut the other’s interests. Close coordination among the three is essential to containing, combating and rolling back the North Korean threat.