Among the two potential flashpoints i.e. the Taiwan Strait and North Korea’s nuclear issue, recent developments suggest that the Taiwan issue could be a greater concern as China’s threatening statements put the US and other stakeholders on the edge. But now the nuclear-armed North Korea seems to have scored over Taiwan as the real flashpoint after a period of lull.
By Prof Rajaram Panda
It raised the threat perception by test-firing a ballistic missile on 4 October 2022 that soared over Japan for the first time in five years. The Japanese government was forced to issue an advisory to the residents to take cover. Japan suspended some train services in the northern part of the country as the missile flew over its territory before falling into the Pacific Ocean.
North Korea’s missile provocations have become more frequent in recent times. Since January 2022, North Korea has conducted 23 weapons test, including four in the first week of October. Though Japanese people had stopped paying attention to such tests, the one conducted on 4 October set alarm bells when residents were advised to take cover. The peoples were suddenly reminded that a possible nuclear test by North Korea anytime soon could be the real threat for the region that is already unsettled by recent Chinese military drills near Taiwan.
It is estimated that the missile being test fired had a 4,600 km range, and flew to a maximum altitude of about 1,000 km, the longest distance ever for a North Korean test flight. It seemed to be an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) launched from North Korea’s Jagang Province, which has been the place from where several recent tests, including multiple missiles (also hypersonic) have been lunched. Initial details suggested that the missile was a Hwasong-12 IRBM. This missile was unveiled in 2017 as part of its threatened plan to strike the US military bases in Guam. North Korea test-fired a Hwasong-12 missile on 15 September 2017 that overflew Japan and similar type missile was also test fired in January 2022. When a missile flies such a long distance, the North Korean scientists get a chance to assess the potency of the missile when used under more realistic conditions. Scientists can assess if the launched missile, unlike taking the usual highly lofted trajectory, can expose a long-range re-entry vehicle to thermal loads and atmospheric re-entry pressures, enduring use in real-world situation.
Such flights are often lofted higher into space to avoid flying over neighbouring countries. Prior to this, North Korea conducted five launches in 10 days, prompting the US aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan to make a port call in South Korea on 23 September, first time since 2018. This period also saw joint drills by the US, Japan and South Korea, and a visit by the US Vice President Kamala Harris who also visited the De-militarised Zone (DMZ) in Panmunjom. Pyongyang has always not seen kindly to any joint US-South Korea military drills, and has perceived as a rehearsal for invasion. As a counter to the drills and defence build-up, North Korea continues to make advance with its nuclear weapon programmes. The firing of ballistic missiles is in that narrative.
When North Korea tested a similar missile in 2017, Trump sent B-1B supersonic bombers and other warplanes close to North Korea. He called Kim a “rocket man” on “a suicide mission”. Kim responded with a test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, which he claimed, was capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the continental US. When Trump promised to unleash “fire and fury”, Kim Jung-un responded with detonating an underground nuclear bomb. A similar scenario seems likely to unfold this time too.
What could explain the timing of the present ballistic missile firing? In 2017 Kim Jong-un seemed determined to provoke a conflict, despite that the then President Donald Trump chose unconventional method of summit diplomacy. Those sincere efforts utterly failed. The international landscape has dramatically changed since Trump left. Biden, his successor, is less mercurial but is more preoccupied in dealing with strained ties with China and the new Ukraine crisis where Russia’s Vladimir Putin has issued a veiled threat to use tactical nuclear weapons. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un seems to have taken advantage of this fluid situation and decided to reclaim a place in the spotlight by launching missile and after missile by ignoring Biden’s repeated offer to return to the negotiating table. Kim Jong-un is also aware that both China and Russia are less likely to cooperate with the UN on sanctions against North Korea.
The timing of the missile firing also could have been influenced by the US focus on the war in Ukraine. Despite this, the US presence in the region is not diminished a bit and it has stepped up displaying force whenever needed. Though Japan did not retaliate by shooting the missile down, it does not rule out the option of doing so in the future. Faced with repeated missile launches, Japan might be provoked to respond with its counterattack capabilities and further strengthen its own defences. South Korea too would seek deeper allied cooperation.
As a protector and stakeholder in the region’s security, the US has obligations to come to help its allies. The US strongly condemned North Korea’s missile launch, calling it “dangerous and reckless” and that it was a blatant disregard for the UN Security Council resolutions, which have imposed sanctions over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes and thus the international safety norms.
In a clear departure of his predecessor Moon Jae-in’s policy of appeasement, the new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol called the test “reckless” and said it would bring a decisive response from his country’s military, its allies and the international community. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida also reacted by calling North Korea’s actions “barbaric”. Despite such provocations, the Biden administration remains open to talks. The US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken joined its allies – Japan and South Korea – to “strongly condemn” North Korea’s firing of a ballistic missile over Japan. The three countries also condemned Pyongyang’s disregard of multiple UN Security Council resolutions and its deeply destabilising implications for the region. 
Is a Seventh Nuclear Test a Possibility?
The first ballistic missile firing over Japanese airspace in over five years could lead to further rounds of significant weapons testing. Kim Jong-un may also be assessing reactions from Moscow and Beijing before taking steps to conduct first nuke test since 2017. As the missile test coincided with the trilateral military exercises by the US, Japan and South Korea and following Kamala Harris’ visit to both Seoul and Tokyo, it was a demonstration of Pyongyang’s political reaction.
South Korea’s Defence Minister, Lee Jong-sup, also told the parliament that the North completed preparations for a nuclear test around May. However, Pyongyang is likely to use a smaller weapon meant for operational use, or a device with a higher yield than in previous tests. The seventh nuke test could be anytime between China’s Communist Party Congress in mid-October and US mid-term elections in November. If it happens, analysts argue that it would be a “dangerous” act and would represent “a grave escalation that would seriously threaten regional and international stability and security”.
This time around, though South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has chosen a rather hawkish position than his predecessor, his ability to punish North Korea is rather limited. Both China and Russia as veto-wielding members of the UNSC are unlikely to change stance and continue to stand by North Korea. Even in the past, both China and Russia have scuttled efforts of the US to pass a UN resolution.
The question that begs an answer, should North Korea be further provoked to indulge in more aggression or rather a quieter way may be a better option. By reacting sharply, it could drive Pyongyang to pursue a more aggressive posture. That is best avoided in preference for diplomacy. The stakeholders need to remember that in September Kim Jong-un announced his country’s nuclear doctrine in which he said North Korea would never give up its nuclear weapons as long as the US and South Korea continued to carry out joint military drills.
One of the fallouts of the North Korean provocation could be that it would help the Kishida administration in achieving its objective of getting a hike in the country’s defence budget passed through the Diet and allow Kishida to pursue a more pro-active defence policy.
There is yet another dimension to the whole development as it unfolds. In the light of Russia’s threat of deploying tactical nuclear weapons, North Korea’s encouragement in pursuing a bolder approach affects the peace in Asia. As a consequence of this growing disquiet in Asia and as geopolitical tensions mount, there are two blocs – China, Russia and North Korea on one side and the US, Japan and South Korea on the other – which shall have to navigate the delicate path not to provoke but play a sobering role so that peace and stability in the region is maintained and not disturbed. These stakeholders also need to keep a watch on how China conducts its regional role as its growing assertiveness on the world stage stemming from its military strength is demonstrated by its behaviour in the recent Taiwan issue.
As fallout of the US-China tensions and Russia’s misadventure in Ukraine, combined with China’s muscle-flexing behaviour in its bilateral ties with Japan, South Korea, India and some ASEAN bloc members, North Korea feels emboldened and this geostrategic scene has pushed Tokyo and Seoul deeper under Washington’s security umbrella, making the security environment in the region messy. Interestingly, Russia has helped North Korea to bail out at the UN Security Council and providing a market for North Korean rockets and artillery shells as it wants to replenish depleted stocks after months of fighting in Ukraine. Kamala Harris’s remarks in Seoul about the US’ “ironclad” security pledge to its allies in Asia and anti-submarine drills off the east coast of the Korean peninsula by the US, Japanese and South Korea navies provoked Kim Jong-un to go for a blitz of missile launches in retaliation. The subsequent US-South Korea joint exercises in August, the largest the two countries have held in years led Pyongyang to react that this was an invasion rehearsal.
When Kim Jong-un found little option left, he took a cue from Putin’s threat of using nuclear sabre-rattling and launched a series of ballistic missiles at enormous cost to the country with the sole objective of earning recognition as a legitimate nuclear weapon state that should not be under sanctions. Designed to raise international alarm, it was a desperate cry for seeking attention. The problem for the US seems to be that it has lost the moderating influence of Beijing on Pyongyang after the US-China relations deteriorated. This presents the South Korean President Yoon a chance to seek accommodation with Pyongyang for the sake of reducing tensions. Pyongyang still remains inflexible and refuses to be persuaded to denuclearize in exchange for help remaking its economy. Yoon Suk-yeol had no choice than to rebuke North Korea’s missile tests and warned of a “resolute, overwhelming response” to a nuclear strike.
Though North Korea possesses between 40 and 50 nuclear warheads and is the smallest arsenal of the world’s nine nuclear-armed states that does not make North Korea less dangerous. Even one nuclear strike is enough to put the world in spin. Kim Jong-un’s new nuclear doctrine announced on 9 September 2022 whereby it resolved never to give up its nuclear programme and retains the right to strike first is chilling news.
Impact of North Korean Threat on Security Perceptions of Japan and South Korea
The threat perceptions in both South Korea and Japan have increased so much that both these two Northeast Asian nations are beginning to rethink their nuclear-free policies. Clamour is increasing in South Korea that it is time now for South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons.
The clamour for acquiring nuclear weapons is irrespective of ideological dogma. This is being fuelled by North Korea’s growing nuclear menace and misgivings about the US’ “extended deterrence” if Pyongyang decides to attack its southern neighbour. The nuclear taboo, a normative inhibition against the first use of nuclear weapons will become irrelevant following Russia’s threat to use nukes in its war against Ukraine. This has stoked concerns in countries such as Japan and South Korea, which do not have their own nuclear weapons.
A similar debate has also been going on in Japan for quite some time. North Korea’s increasingly bellicose stance has raised heat on Japan’s most contentious issue of re-militarisation. Also, argument for augmenting defence spending has gained traction. A rethinking of the country’s nuclear policy could also gained currency. A more detailed discussion here is outside the purview of this analysis.
What is India’s Position?
Regrettably, India has stubbornly stuck to its policy of neutrality and is reluctant to take position, except merely expressing concern. This is not enough for a country that claims to have raised its global profile and has been sitting on the high tables of global and regional fora. The world knows and India is aware that it is not perceived as a threatening power unlike China and that its voice carries weight on such important regional/global issues. Given this truth, why India still remains reticent in not speaking its mind on developments in Taiwan or the Korean Peninsula defies logic.
As regards the Taiwan issued, India has been deepening trade and economic ties despite subscribing to the “One China” policy. But still it remains muted when Taiwan comes under constant threat from China. Yet there is subtle message from New Delhi to Taipei that it supports the latter’s democratic values. This is clearly not enough.
Worse is India’s position on the Korean Peninsula development, especially when the world is concerned about North Korea’s nuclear weapons development programme. India that maintains diplomatic ties with both the Koreas is in the enviable position in offering to mediate for a mutually acceptable solution. Though unification seems to be a mirage at the moment, at least a start could be initiated. And the start could be to reach out to Pyongyang to stop the mindless game of missile launches and threat to conduct another nuclear weapon test. What seems to be missing is right diplomatic advice to the political leadership to this possibility. In one of previous posts the author had argued that India might consider the idea of offering to host a summit meeting between the US President Joe Biden and North Korean leader Kim Jung-un and thus play the mediatory role for the sake of peace as larger issue of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific is at stake. A sound diplomatic advice to the political leadership to this possibility could elevate India’s stature globally.
This article first appeared in www.vifindia.org and it belongs to them.