Cellphone emergency alerts buzzed and loudspeakers crackled on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido on Tuesday morning, as North Korea launched its first ballistic missile test over the East Asian nation since 2009, setting off warning systems and prompting the government to urge residents to “evacuate to a sturdy building or basement.”
In the end, the launch flopped harmlessly into the Pacific Ocean, though it represents a distinct provocation at a time when 67,500 U.S. and South Korean troops are engaged in joint military exercises on the Korean peninsula. However, it did not target the U.S. territory of Guam, which Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un said he was “examining” striking earlier this month — a scenario U.S. President Donald Trump warned would be met with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Nevertheless, the missile test — North Korea’s 13th this year, after three more over the weekend — puts Trump in a difficult position. The lack of a clear and present danger to U.S. forces makes any retaliation problematic, as the U.S. commander-in-chief would be painted as the aggressor.
But not to respond weakens Washington’s alliance with Tokyo, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the launch an “outrageous act” and an “unprecedented, serious and grave threat [that] greatly damages regional peace and security.”
Abe and Trump spoke for 40 minutes soon after the missile was detected. The launch has ramped up calls in Japan and South Korea for increased offensive and defensive measures, something vehemently opposed by China.
“In some ways it is devilishly well-calibrated,” Prof. Stephan Haggard, a Korea expert at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy, says of Tuesday’s launch. “It’s driving a wedge between Seoul, Washington and Beijing on this issue.”
On Monday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in called for his military to establish as “three-axis system” that could launch a preemptive strike upon imminent attack and also to develop an indigenous missile defense system. Moon highlighted the need to “quickly switch to an offensive posture in case North Korea stages a provocation.”
South Korea currently hosts one battery of the U.S. THAAD missile defense system, which Beijing has deemed an affront, even organizing boycotts of South Korean businesses in response. Beijing has pushed for a so-called “double-freeze” agreement, under which Washington and Seoul suspend their joint military drills, and put THAAD deployment under review, in exchange for Pyongyang halting its nuclear and missile tests. Moon has also supported negotiations if the conditions are right.
However, Tuesday’s provocation makes such a “double freeze” extremely problematic. “How can South Korea, which is facing this existential threat, make itself more vulnerable and less prepared, and undermine its military capabilities to respond to North Korean military threats?” asks Daniel Pinkston, an East Asia expert at Troy University in South Korea. “That’s just not happening.”
Tuesday’s test also spotlights the impotence of Japan’s own defensive measures. The U.S. Navy and Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force maintain interceptors aboard Aegis Combat System-equipped guided missile cruisers and destroyers in the Sea of Japan. However, these did not attempt to intercept Tuesday’s missile, which flew eastward from near Pyongyang for 1,678 mi (2,700 km) at an altitude of 342 mi (550 km), according to the South Korean military.
There will be renewed calls within Japan for it to host its own THAAD or Aegis Ashore anti-missile batteries, a move that could further drive a wedge between Tokyo and Beijing, which on Aug. 5 agreed to unprecedented U.N. sanctions against North Korea. Resolution 2371 targets a third of North Korea’s $3 billion worth of foreign earnings — chiefly iron, lead, coal and seafood exports — plus revenues through its banks and foreign ventures.
However, soon after Resolution 2371 passed the U.S. announced secondary sanctions against 10 Chinese and Russian firms and six individuals doing business in North Korea — retaliations described by Beijing as a “mistake.” The prospect of enhanced U.S. military hardware like THAAD — which has phenomenal surveillance capabilities — on China’s doorstep will only further vex Beijing. And given that China is responsible for 90% of North Korea trade across the 880-mile border it shares with Pyongyang, it would only be too easy for an aggrieved Beijing to loosen sanctions enforcement.
Finally, the test indicates that North Korea’s technical expertise is advancing despite the sanctions. The distance flown by the missile, supposedly a mid-range Hwasong-12, clearly demonstrates that Guam — situated 1,550 mi (2,500 km) southeast of Tokyo — is now a viable target. The missile was launched at 5:28 am local time time from Sunan near Pyongyang’s international airport, according to South Korean officials, suggesting this may have been a road-mobile launch, undermining the effectiveness of preemptive U.S. missile strikes.
Still, the launch was not without risk for Kim. There was a chance that a fishing or naval craft could have been hit by the ditching missile, or even that it would break apart during the two minutes it spent in Japanese airspace, and shower its civilian population with debris. But the 33-year-old has never flinched in his pursuit of a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the continental U.S., and few believe he can be convinced otherwise when so tantalizingly close.
“Even if the U.S. ceased to exist, North Korea’s worldview and ideology requires self reliance and force and nuclear weapons,” adds Pinkston. “As long as there’s another nuclear state they feel they should also have this capability.”