If South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, entertained for a moment the idea that North Korea would give him an opportunity to test his readiness to engage, those hopes died Sunday when Pyongyang tested a new intermediate-range missile. The test was a success and raises the stakes for dealing with North Korea. It is not a crisis, but it is a slap in the face to Moon as well as every other government that hopes to get North Korea to act in accordance with international rules and the wishes of the rest of the world.
North Korea has conducted six sets of missile tests in 2017 — nine missiles in total — with varying results. The last test, in April, was a failure: The missile broke up in midair shortly after takeoff. Sunday’s test was a success, however. What is thought to have been an intermediate-range missile flew a claimed 787 km in about 30 minutes before crashing into the Sea of Japan. Experts were surprised by the launch, which represents a level of performance hitherto unattainable by the North. The Hwasong-12 flew higher and longer than any previous North Korean missile. If launched on a trajectory designed to maximize distance, it could have traveled 4,500 km, which would put U.S. bases in Guam within range.
Equally, if not more important, the missile landed in a narrowly defined area, between South Korea’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) and that of Japan, which suggests targeting capabilities are developing as well. Finally, North Korea claims the test demonstrated that it had mastered re-entry technology, which would allow a warhead to survive the flight and detonate on impact. All in all, it is a troubling development. Experts fear that this test represents a big step forward in the drive to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile that would threaten the mainland United States.
Some strategists argue that such a capability is a strategic game changer. In fact, the U.S. was under such threats in the Cold War from the Soviet Union, but even that far more formidable arsenal did not deter Washington from committing to the defense of its allies. The notion that North Korea’s capabilities would keep the U.S. from honoring its obligations under its mutual security treaties is mistaken. In its response to the test, the U.S. government released a statement saying that “the United States maintains our ironclad commitment to stand with our allies in the face of the serious threat posed by North Korea. Let this latest provocation serve as a call for all nations to implement far stronger sanctions against North Korea.”
The problem is that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may well believe his own propaganda. This arsenal may prompt him to run greater risks or miscalculate U.S. or South Korean reaction to a crisis. Conflict or even war could well follow from such thinking.
While North Korean missile tests are largely driven by their own development schedule, there is no missing the signals sent by the timing of this launch. It follows the election of South Korea’s new president, a man who has stated his readiness to build a new relationship with Pyongyang based on dialogue and engagement, and who is less inclined to use coercion. The missile test is a forceful statement of North Korean intentions — it will not be enticed by such prospects and the North has no interest in compromising or even slowing its schedule in return.
If Seoul is troubled by that message, then Beijing must be angered. The missile test occurred just as Chinese President Xi Jinping opened the Belt and Road Forum, a meeting designed to showcase the “One Belt, One Road” initiative and Beijing’s intention to use it as a framework for constructing a new regional order. North Korea’s test distracted from the message of peace and integration and reminded the world that China could not corral all its partners in support of its agenda. The test was especially galling as Beijing had reached out to North Korea to send representatives to the forum, a move that was criticized by other participants for sending the wrong signal to Pyongyang.
The test will likely result in another round of sanctions against North Korea, although the new South Korean government will find it hard to back moves to increase pressure while simultaneously making the case for dialogue. China, which is never comfortable with coercive diplomacy (except in pursuit of its own national interests, such as isolating Taiwan), will use any call by the Moon government as a reason to give diplomacy a chance. The North is counting on that dynamic to drive a wedge between the states with stakes in Northeast Asia — South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the U.S. — that are crucial to the success of any campaign to force Pyongyang to negotiate.