18 February 2019
North Korea’s latest missile test suggests its technology may have reached a new, far more threatening level. Photo: Reuters
North Korea’s latest missile test suggests its technology may have reached a new, far more threatening level. Photo: Reuters

What if the ‘mad men’ in Washington and Pyongyang square off?

Barely two weeks after US President Donald Trump said he would be willing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “under the right circumstances”, Pyongyang test-fired another ballistic missile last Sunday.

While the action shouldn’t be a surprise given the regime’s numerous missile tests in recent months in defiance of international warnings, the latest one was particularly noteworthy and stunning.

It is because not only did the missile successfully hit its target area 787 kilometers away in the sea, it also flew at an altitude of over 2000 kilometers, the highest any North Korean ballistic missile was ever able to reach so far, indicating that Pyongyang’s missile technology might have finally come of age.

No wonder official mouthpieces in Pyongyang immediately bragged about the successful test-launch, and warned Washington in a threatening tone that the US would suffer the “most severe consequences” if it continued with its sabre-rattling on the Korean Peninsula.

It is because North Korea, according to them, now already possesses nuclear weapons that are able to directly strike not only American military bases in the Pacific but also the continental US as well.

Designated the “Mars-12″, the missile was launched from a nuclear facility located along the western coast of North Korea at roughly 05:30am on May 14. As the missile flew at a high altitude, it suggests Pyongyang may have acquired the cutting-edge technology of producing ballistic missile re-entry vehicles that can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads, some military experts say.

Experts also said that if fired at a standard trajectory, the missile could have an operational range of up to 5,000 kilometers, long enough to hit Guam, Hawaii or even Alaska.

In other words, the successful test-launch of “Mars-12″ marks a giant step forward in Pyongyang’s efforts to produce its own ICBMs that can truly constitute a threat to the US.

Not only has the world been stunned by the technological breakthrough demonstrated in this latest test-launch, but the timing with which it was carried out has also exacerbated concerns among the international community that North Korea is becoming increasingly defiant and reckless, and is not afraid of adding fuel to the already boiling tension in the region.

First, the test-firing was conducted just days after Moon Jae-in had been sworn in as the new president of South Korea. During his campaign Moon had vowed to seek reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula and economic cooperation with the North as long as Pyongyang stopped its nuclear aggression.

Now, the missile test-launch by Pyongyang can be interpreted as an outright rebuff to Moon’s goodwill rhetoric, indicating that the Kim regime is not going to go easy on the new government in Seoul.

Second, the timing of the North Korean missile test couldn’t have been worse for China, as it took place when Beijing was hosting leaders and representatives from dozens of countries around the world for the “One Belt One Road” summit. President Xi Jinping.

With Pyongyang firing a missile even as Chinese President Xi Jinping was receiving guests from around the globe to discuss issues surrounding free trade, economic cooperation and international harmony, it amounted to a terrible slap in Xi’s face.

As a matter of fact, it’s no secret that Beijing and Pyongyang have been drifting apart ever since Kim Jong-un took power in North Korea in December 2011. These days, China can no longer restrain Pyongyang from causing troubles on its doorstep, unlike what Beijing could do before.

The reason why Pyongyang has become more and more disrespectful to Beijing in recent years could be because as North Korea has been importing crude oil from Russia since 2012, it no longer has to rely on China for energy like it did before. With reduced economic dependence, Pyongyang is increasingly acting on its own regardless of Beijing’s wishes.

However, only time will tell whether Kim has made the right decision by placing all his bets on Russia, which has proven time and again throughout history that it is an unreliable ally.

As situation on the Korean Peninsula has suddenly taken a turn for the worse, it appears the prospect of any peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis is getting dimmer and dimmer.

What the rest of the world can only do right now is just wait and watch how things would play out as two “mad men” in Washington and Pyongyang could potentially square off against one another.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 16

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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