Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said North Korea poses “a new level of threat”following its firing Monday of a barrage of ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan — three of them into Japan’s exclusive economic zone 300 km to 350 km west of Akita Prefecture. Japan needs to work together with other countries with stakes in Northeast Asia to explore new responses to the threat, as the repeated missile launches and nuclear weapons tests by Pyongyang since last year prove that international attempts so far to stop the military ambitions of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un through sanctions and condemnations have not been successful.
All the while, Kim’s regime has steadily upgraded its military capabilities. Abe noted that the missiles, which were reportedly fired simultaneously, flew about 1,000 km and reached an altitude of 260 km, landed with extreme precision. Neither Japan, the United States or South Korea is said to have been able to detect advance signs of the latest firings, because North Korea likely used solid-propellant rockets and mobile launch vehicles.
Due to their range and altitude, Monday’s test is not believed to involve intercontinental ballistic missiles — which North Korea claims are in the “final stage”of preparation for test-launching — but either an improved version of a short-range Scud missile or an intermediate-range Rodong missile that has much of Japan within its range of target. But the firings could still be a part of North Korea’s efforts to develop an ICBM. In his New Year’s Day address, Kim said his regime was on course to develop a long-range missile capable of hitting New York and Washington. Responses to North Korea’s missile threat need to keep that prospect in mind.
On Tuesday, North Korea’s state media said the launches were a ballistic missile firing drill by “artillery units tasked to strike”U.S. military bases in Japan. The Korean Central News Agency said the drill, which was personally supervised by Kim, was aimed at checking the procedure for handling nuclear warheads — suggesting that the missiles were intended to simulate nuclear strikes. The report did not mention what types of missiles were fired. A North Korean official at its United Nations mission in New York called the firings a normal process of developing his country’s military capabilities for self-defense.
The U.N. Security Council is weighing the holding of an emergency meeting on Wednesday — at the request of Japan, the U.S. and South Korea — to consider a press statement strongly condemning the latest missile firings by North Korea as a violation of earlier UNSC resolutions. On Tuesday morning, Abe held telephone talks with U.S. President Donald Trump, who the prime minister said agreed that North Korea’s threat has entered a “new stage”and told him that the U.S. will “stand by Japan 100 percent”in responding to the threat. Trump also discussed the situation in a telephone call with Hwang Kyo-ahn, South Korea’s prime minister and acting president.
Closely coordinated responses by Japan, the U.S. and South Korea will indeed be important in dealing with North Korea’s missile and nuclear threat. But the previous U.S. administration of President Barack Obama, with its policy of “strategic patience”of rejecting dialogue with North Korea unless it demonstrates its intent to denuclearize, was unable to take effective steps to halt Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear weapons programs. The South Korean administration of President Park Geun-hye, which initially explored dialogue with the North, is now in a state of political paralysis with Park suspended from power following a parliamentary vote of impeachment for her corruption scandal. Previous experiences show that repeated international condemnations and talk of concerted efforts do little to derail Kim’s regime from its military ambitions.
Trump has told Abe that his administration will consider all possible options in dealing with North Korea, which likely include military responses. But the new U.S. administration’s policy toward the Korean Peninsula in its entirety remains unknown, and it’s not clear whether Washington has effective means at hand to stop North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. The U.S. has repeatedly urged China to use its influence on North Korea to halt Kim’s moves, but — as Beijing argues — its leverage over Pyongyang seems limited, given that the latest missile launches came right on the heels of a recent visit to Beijing by a senior North Korean foreign ministry official for talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
The “new level”of threat posed by North Korea will require new responses, but there does not seem to be a clear-cut answer as to what those should be. What seems clear is that merely repeating past responses will not suffice.
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