No diplomatic urgency after latest North Korean missile test

03Dec 2017
Guardian On Sunday
No diplomatic urgency after latest North Korean missile test

TALKING about North Korean missile tests or nuclear tests has become so familiar that it starts to be boring to some ears.

Secretary of State RexTillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Matis

One reason is that so much tension was raised on past nuclear tests and repeated missile tests whose range tends to increase with time, that it became the old story about a boy and a wolf.

Finally people stop paying attention, and once they no longer think of it, the wolf hits.

The boy in this scenario is someone rather boyish, North Korean supreme leader Kim Jon-un, while the wolf is US President Donald Trump, who once promised ‘fire and fury’ for endangering the US.

Now that seems to have been forgotten as well since, on insistence from his own officials, it is now clear that no ‘fire and fury’ shall descend over North Korea unless it makes a mistake. A big mistake.

The mistakes the North Koreans have made so far are those that provoke their neighbors and sister state, South Korea, rather than provoking the United States or Japan too directly.

With South Korea the Pyongyang authorities have once in a while allowed their soldiers to sink a small boat or capture tourists who come too close to the border with North Korea. With Japan it has fired missiles far above the regularly used airspace, and with the US missiles flew above Guam key naval base.

All this is quite familiar and has provoked no ‘fire and fury’ from the United States, and what is more, its key allies in Seoul and Tokyo get worried when the current US authorities drift into a ‘surprise attack’ sort of mood.

Even within the Trump administration the formal line is diplomacy, all of it and permanently, not to put some red lines not to be crossed. Secretary of State RexTillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Matis are both vowed to talks, while President Trump has red lines.

Indeed that was the question being asked after the latest missile test as it was more or less exceptional. The missile, launched early Wednesday landed in Japanese waters, having reached an altitude of 4,500 kilometers and flew 960km, according to broadcasts sourced from the South Korean military.

Defence Secretary Matis said the missile launch went higher, ‘frankly, than any previous shots they have taken.’  There was nearly no dispute that the whole US territory could be reached.

There were still some lingering questions on the missile test, how important it was, and the sort of warhead or bomb it could carry with that vehicle, and over that distance.

The US-based Union of Concerned Scientists said that the missile could have travelled more than 13,000 km on a standard trajectory, ‘thus reaching any part of continental United States.’ Still it had seemingly a light mock warhead, implying it didn’t explode in air or in touching the sea in a fully measurable way.

Japanese officials said that the projectile travelled for about 50 minutes – but did not fly over Japan as in some previous tests, and instead landed 250km off its northern coast.

That means Japan was less concerned with this test than with the others, as the level of provocation was more limited, less frontal or extravagant as to how Pyongyang was a threat to their security.

Japan condemned the test, saying it represented ‘continuous provocative behavior’ while South Korea condemned it and moved to conduct a missile exercise of its own – which North Korea ignored.

The reaction by South Korea represented the difference in perspectives between North Korea and its neighbors, the strategic significance of its tests, and what sort of threat the tests pose. While the US was looking for answers – but top aides to President Trump insisted that the latest test did not mean diplomatic efforts had been exhausted – the mood was interesting in North Korea. The test appeared to conclude the work that supreme leader, Kim Jong-un had asked the military to do.

Having brought up a missile that in flat trajectory can hit anywhere in the world, the supreme leader is likely to feel confident that North Korea is now respected as a nuclear power on its own right.

It means that public opinion among countries in the neighborhood as well as in the US will urge even greater caution in tackling Pyongyang than was the case earlier. This provides a lifeline against pre-emptive strike, as that option isn’t popular anywhere, if in Seoul, Tokyo or Washington.

At a wider diplomatic level, the latest test provoked the idea that the North Korean missiles crisis is a problem without a solution, on the basis of a commentary by Jonathan Marcus, a defense and diplomatic correspondent with the BBC, a UK news channel.

He noticeably surmised that the missile test, the first in two months or so, showed that the lull in firings was not due to North Korea being cowed by the ‘fire and fury’ declarations by the US president, or Chinese pressure. There were other lulls in nuclear or missile tests in the past, thus it was a normal lull.

Listening to reactions, no one was in a hurry to make conclusions as to what should be done.

Trump simply said ‘we will take care of it,’ not when or how. But there are new sanctions on North Korean shipping that Pyongyang quickly blasted.