The ballistic missile North Korea launched on Thursday may have flown over Japan, but the message it carried was addressed to Washington and New York as much as it was to Tokyo.
The precipitating event for this most recent escalation of tensions in Northeast Asia was Monday’s passage of a fresh round of U.N. Security Council sanctions against the rogue regime, including a cap on its oil imports and an embargo on its textile exports. The U.S. had hoped to cut off North Korea from oil markets entirely, but China, its main supplier, balked at that demand, and the final sanctions resolution was watered down.
Nonetheless, the sanctions are the toughest ever imposed on the country, although nobody at the U.N. believes sanctions alone will curb Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions. Instead, the hope is that they will coerce Kim into restarting negotiations over freezing or scrapping the nuclear program — at least at some point, perhaps, once they’ve had time to sink in. Russia and China are still pushing a plan to swap a suspension of North Korean nuclear and missile testing for a halt to joint U.S.–South Korean military exercises, which looks like a nonstarter with both the Trump administration and South Korean president Moon Jae-in.
The new sanctions will certainly sting Pyongyang, as evinced by the grandiose and unhinged statement North Korea’s ironically named Korea Asia-Pacific peace committee put out in response. It said Japan “should be sunken into the sea,” with the U.S. “beaten to death like a rabid dog,” and expressed fantasies of “reduc[ing] the U.S. mainland into ashes and darkness.”
That this statement was followed up with a highly provocative missile test within hours is no surprise. On top of terrifying Japan, the launch was clearly intended to demonstrate that Pyongyang can threaten the U.S. as well. The missile traveled about 3,700 kilometers before plunging into the Pacific Ocean — which means the U.S. island territory of Guam, 3,400 kilometers from North Korea, is within its range.
Last month, the North Korean regime threatened to launch missiles near Guam in its next show of force, in order to demonstrate its ability to strike the island; Thursday’s test achieved that objective by other means. The message Pyongyang appears to be sending is “bring it on”: Sanctions might hurt us, but they won’t stop us.
The question now is how the other parties to this crisis will respond. North Korea was already going to be a hot topic at the ongoing U.N. General Assembly in New York and a focal point of President Donald Trump’s address to it next week, but it is unclear whether a president who is skeptical of the relevance of international institutions to begin with can successfully leverage such an event to actually accomplish anything. A belligerent speech from Trump will likely just set up the next provocation from Kim — though it is unclear how much further he can escalate matters without crossing the threshold of war.
If the key to securing North Korea’s cooperation is China, the Trump administration is sending mixed messages about how it is approaching that country. In a statement responding to the test, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called out China and Russia for their continued trade relations with North Korea — specifically China’s oil sales and Russia’s use of North Korean migrant labor — and pressed them to cut these economic ties. Trump on Thursday said his administration has a good relationship with China and its president, Xi Jinping, and the two countries are “working on different things.”
At the same time, however, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was telling Politico that there is “nothing logically inconsistent” about asking for Beijing’s help with North Korea while also waging a low-key trade war against it. Trump himself recently threatened, however idly, to cut off trade with China entirely if it continued to do business with Pyongyang. Taken alongside the fact that the U.S. has shown no interest in China’s repeated suggestion of deescalating tensions in the Korean peninsula by pausing war games there, these statements suggest we are not, in fact, on the verge of a breakthrough in this regard.
South Korea’s President Moon, meanwhile, maintained in a CNN interview on Thursday (before the missile test) that he had no interest in deploying nuclear weapons in his country in response to the North Korean threat, as he does not want to precipitate a destabilizing nuclear arms race in the region. However, the longer the current crisis persists and the worse it becomes, the more pressure Moon will likely face to reconsider that position. Sixty percent of South Koreans told a recent Gallup poll that they supported their country having its own nuclear weapons.
Given that the costs to both sides would be unacceptably high, the probability of an actual hot war between North Korea and South Korea, Japan, and/or the U.S. remains low, but in the absence of any forward motion toward a diplomatic solution that reduces tensions, the danger remains that some miscommunication, misinterpretation, or misfired missile will rapidly send the situation spiraling out of control.