North Korea launched an unknown type of ballistic missile off its east coast toward the Sea of Japan Sunday morning local time. South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff claimed that the missile flew about 500 kilometers. According to analysis worldwide, it was not a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, but more likely an intermediate-range missile test.
South Korea, the US and Japan promptly sent strong reactions and international media almost simultaneously speculated one of Pyongyang's goals over the timing was to send a signal to US President Donald Trump
's government and test Washington's attitude. Both Trump and major players in his team have warned Pyongyang many times. At least in their words, they displayed a tougher stance than Barack Obama's government.
North Korea staged a missile test on Chinese lunar new year's eve a year ago. This time, Pyongyang conducted the test after the Lantern Festival
, which seems to indicate the positive effect Beijing has had after a year of participation in the UN Security Council's sanctions, as well as exerting influence in several spheres on North Korea. However, Pyongyang's persistence in launching missiles will further provide an excuse to accelerate Washington and Seoul's pace to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system in South Korea, which damages China's strategic interests.
Pyongyang's development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles has become a severe annoyance for Northeast Asia. It is nigh-on impossible to persuade it either by carrot or stick. International sanctions have proved to have limited effects. North Korea has turned into a special country outside the global system, while the outside world is finding it increasingly hard to engage with it.
When Pyongyang started to develop nuclear weapons, it believed the weapons would make it safer. But today's North Korea is more dangerous. The military threat it faces looks very real and it is now enduring the harshest sanctions since the end of the Cold War. We can imagine the level of its upset and rage.
After making huge sacrifices, Pyongyang has nothing but its immature nuclear and missile technologies. It may no longer accept a deal to trade its nuclear weapons for security; it wants more. The North Korean people believe their difficulties are caused by the US and South Korea. The latter needs to pay more for all the twists and turns Pyongyang went through all these years.
North Korea's comprehensive strength is weak; even if it actually has nuclear weapons, its nuclear deterrence will be muted. The country has no way of transferring this power into a diplomatic tool. Meanwhile, if Washington keeps cracking down on Pyongyang's nuclear development while turning a blind eye to North Korea's concerns, their current confrontation will develop into an absurd struggle.
Seoul, Washington and Tokyo have been asking Beijing to pile more pressure on Pyongyang to force the latter to give up its nuclear development. The reality is that they are treating a secondary issue and not the root cause. If this continues, they will be lost in the maze of North Korea's nuclear issue.
If Trump is really interested in easing the crisis, it is hoped that he can actually do something about this conundrum's underlying reasons.