North Korea raises concern with its missile tests

Dhaka,  Mon,  25 September 2017
Published : 13 Aug 2017, 20:33:38 | Updated : 13 Aug 2017, 20:34:08

North Korea raises concern with its missile tests

Muhammad Zamir
An interesting analysis recently appeared on North Korea and its reckless use of missiles to draw attention to itself. It was written by David Wright, an international expert on the technical aspects of arms control, particularly those related to missile defence systems, missile proliferation, and space weapons.

Commenting in the CNN, he pointed out that a missile capable of reaching the United States topped with a nuclear warhead is considered by Pyongyang to be its ultimate goal. On July 28, Pyongyang made a major progress toward that goal. It announced that it had successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach most of the mainland US, including some of the country's largest cities. It appears that North Korea with each missile test has tried to prove that it is not only acquiring expertise but also slowly acquiring the ability to potentially strike US.

The July 28 test demonstrated that Pyongyang can now fire a missile almost straight up to an altitude of about 2,300 miles. That would enable a missile to land in the Sea of Japan/East Sea without flying over Japan. This dynamics has been interpreted by David Wright as a probability factor where on a standard trajectory it would have the range to reach a number of major cities in the US, including those on the West Coast as well as Denver, Chicago, and possibly Boston and New York. He has also observed that is a clear indication that North Korea has made very significant progress in its ability to launch long-range missiles. He has, however, observed that "these missiles would be inaccurate and would not be able to destroy military targets, but would be able to attack large targets like cities".

Not all of North Korea's missile launches have been successful. There were three failures in April after the failed test in March. Little is known as to why those launches failed or even what missile was fired in March. On these occasions, unlike during successful tests, North Korea did not release detailed photographs and other information that would allow one to understand more about the missiles.

The United States, along with Japan and South Korea, as a consequence of these long-range missile tests, have been forced to adopt a more hands-on response with a re-think in tactics. This new path started with US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley pointing to China and asserting that "The time for talk is over," and that Beijing "must decide if it is finally willing to take this vital step" of challenging Pyongyang. This was echoed by US President Donald Trump who tweeted his disappointment with China and strongly remarked that "Our foolish past leaders have allowed (Beijing) to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet they do nothing for us with North Korea, just talk". This was rubbed in further by Susan Thornton, Acting Assistant Secretary of the State Department's East Asia bureau. She commented that Chinese failure in this regard might persuade the United States " to go after Chinese entities if need be."

Some commentators on Far East strategic paradigm differ on China's ability to persuade or greatly influence North Korea. John Delury, an expert on Chinese-Korean relations at Seoul's Yonsei University, has pointed out that "Beijing's channels to Pyongyang are frayed, they're weak. President Trump's tweets reflect this inherited Obama view that the road to Pyongyang leads through Beijing -- that's a dead end." Another commentator, Mike Chinoy, has observed that many high-level North Koreans "resent the hell out of the Chinese. They hate the idea that the Chinese can come in and tell them what to do. And the reality is the Chinese can't."

UN SANCTIONS: In the meantime, the UN Security Council has unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea. Russia and China also participated in this vote. The two countries have previously differed with others on how to handle Pyongyang, but in recent months have joined in calls for North Korea to stop its missile tests while also urging at the same time the US and South Korea to halt military drills.

The sanctions refer to the following aspects: (a) banning of import of coal, seafood, iron and iron ore, lead and lead ore from North Korea; (b) countries not receiving new North Korean workers; (c) ban on any new joint ventures with North Korean entities or individuals; (d) no new investment in existing joint ventures; (e) targeting more individuals with travel bans and assets freezes and (f) member states having to report to Security Council within 90 days on how they have implemented this resolution.

North Korea has yet to officially respond to the new sanctions. However, a senior official has mentioned that "We will make our stance clear when things are determined." The  ruling party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, has been more blunt and stated that nuclear action or sanctions taken by Washington would lead to an "unimaginable sea of fire" engulfing the US.

Professor Alexander Gillespie has made some interesting observations in the Al-Jazeera. He has pointed out that Mr Trump and his allies could choose to expand the THAAD system of missile air defence but the risk with this approach is that it will lead to both North Korea and China rattling their sabres even louder. Although the chance of these planned events leading to intentional war is very small, "the risks of unplanned events caused by paranoia, accidents, mistakes or uncontrolled anger make this one of the most dangerous situations facing humanity since we almost had a nuclear war over Cuba in 1962".

FIRST HIGH-LEVEL ENCOUNTER BETWEEN THE TWO KOREAS: Nevertheless, despite the sanctions and international warnings and the stubbornness on the part of the North Korean authorities, there has been a faint glimmer of hope within the evolving dynamics. This was possible because of the Asean Ministerial meeting held in Manila. South Korean authorities told the BBC that its Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha spoke to her North Korean counterpart Ri Yong Ho on  August 06, 2017 on the sidelines of the meeting. Ms Kang and Mr Ri shook hands in a brief and unarranged meeting at an official dinner. South Korea has apparently proposed talks with the North last month to ease tensions and resume reunions of families separated by the Korean War, but Pyongyang has yet to officially respond. Informally, North Korea is supposed to have remarked that South Korea's offer of talks was "insincere". This possible rejection has been interpreted as being connected with the mounting sanctions on North Korea. Wang Yi, the Foreign Minister of China, Pyongyang's closest ally (also present in the ASEAN meeting), was, however, more optimistic. He told journalists on  August 07, "My feeling is that the North did not entirely reject the positive proposals raised by the South." He added that China also supported the South's initiatives.

This was the first high-level encounter between the two Koreas since South Korean President Moon Jae-in took office in May this year. Moon has long been a proponent of greater dialogue with Pyongyang in order to diffuse tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Moon helped craft the so-called "Sunshine Policy," which called for an increase of engagement in the political and economic spheres. In July, South Korea's Defence Ministry has also proposed talks between the representatives of the two countries' militaries at Tongil-gak on the North Korean side of Panmunjom, the so-called truce village in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that separates the two rivals. North Korea has yet to respond to the overtures.

It is understood that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who also attended the forum, skipped the gala dinner where the two ministers spoke and also avoided discussing anything with the North Korean representative. After discussing growing tensions between the USA and Russia with the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, the US Secretary of State, according to CNN, told a press conference on  August 07 that "We hope again that this ultimately will result in North Korea coming to a conclusion to choose a different pathway, and when the conditions are right, we can sit and have a dialogue around the future of North Korea so that they feel secure and prosper economically." 

The US has long been saying it would agree to talk only if North Korea agrees to denuclearisation -- something many analysts believe is unlikely.

The writer, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.

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