What’s next after NK’s new missile launch

By Li Jiacheng Source:Global Times Published: 2017/12/5 21:58:39

North Korea launched a new Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on November 29. It is the first time that North Korea has successfully launched an ICBM this winter. Following the launch, the government published a statement claiming that "The ICBM Hwasong-15 type weaponry system is an intercontinental ballistic rocket tipped with a super-large heavy warhead that is capable of striking the whole mainland of the US. We have finally realized the great historic meaning of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building rocket power." Various missile experts from the US and South Korea hold that the statement is credible. If flown on a standard trajectory, the missile would have a range of around 13,000 kilometers, making it the biggest maximum range of a North Korean missile to date.

The Hwasong-15 test was aimed at winning international recognition for North Korea to strengthen not only its power in nuclear, but also in negotiation. It is North Korea's bold response to US President Donald Trump's recent re-designation of North Korea as "a state sponsor of terrorism."

However, the fact that the missile was not directed at Guam or Hawaii, and rather, landed nearby some islands off Japan, indicates that North Korea did not intend to excessively irritate the international community.

Nevertheless, the launch of the Hwasong-15 still escalated tensions between the US and North Korea. The US is considering taking military measures, and Trump tweeted how he spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping about "the provocative actions of North Korea," also saying that "additional major sanctions will be imposed on North Korea today. This situation will be handled!" In his conversation with Xi, Trump emphasized the need for China to use all available levers to persuade North Korea to end its provocation and return to the path of denuclearization, including cutting off oil imports.

Trump is still dubious whether China, which has the greatest influence over the North Korean economy, will take action to impose sanctions.

Therefore, the US will continue to form US-Japan and US-South Korea alliances to impose maximum pressure and sanctions on North Korea, in both nuclear deterrence and conventional containment measures. Yet many doubt whether intensive pressure and sanctions will really help.

The US also intends to instigate a naval blockade, which would see the Korean Peninsula suddenly turn into a stage of military conflict. Cutting off maritime transport of the North Korean trade route is a double-edged sword. Although it would block the channel through which North Korea has been obtaining foreign exchange for research and development of nuclear missiles, conflicts may arise if the US actively searches out North Korean ships. If such conflicts escalate into retaliation, an all-out war may be triggered.

Although the US has always claimed that a preemptive strike has been on the table, it is unlikely the US will exercise targeted elimination in this form toward North Korea as the risks of triggering a war are too high.

It is for this reason that the US government has not declared a military intervention. South Korean President Moon Jae-in emphasized that a US preemptive strike against North Korea must be prevented, which serves as another reassurance that the US would not militarily intervene.  

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement right after the latest North Korean missile launch: "Diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now. The United States remains committed to finding a peaceful path to denuclearization and to ending belligerent actions by North Korea." A stronger US-North Korea dialogue can help avoid a war and millions of casualties. Though it's unlikely that the US will sign a peace agreement with North Korea and withdraw US forces from South Korea, the US Congressional Research Service, in a policy report released in November, did propose the option of withdrawing US forces from South Korea.

It is estimated that in a couple of months, North Korea will be able to fit a miniature nuclear warhead onto a missile. Then, North Korea can really pose a threat to the continental US, and demand its long pursued negotiations on disarmament. The Nodong ballistic missile, which has South Korea and Japan in its range, can also be equipped with nuclear warheads, so as to threaten US military bases in the two countries. North Korea still holds leverage with its threat to launch a hydrogen bomb and conduct its seventh nuclear test in the Pacific Ocean. Everything now depends on how the US and South Korea react. As the US intensifies sanctions against North Korea, the possibility of a new round of nuclear tests by Pyongyang will also increase.

The author is a research fellow at the Research Center for the Economies and Politics of Transitional Countries, Liaoning University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn


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