23 February 2019
North Korea's latest missile launch has led to calls for tougher action and further sanctions against the Kim Jong-un regime. Photo: Reuters
North Korea's latest missile launch has led to calls for tougher action and further sanctions against the Kim Jong-un regime. Photo: Reuters

How will the North Korea nuclear crisis play out?

On Tuesday, North Korea announced that it successfully test-fired a newly designed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and claimed that the country has officially become a nuclear power that is capable of hitting any part of the world.

The “Hwasong-14″ ballistic missile was launched from a military airfield located in the northwestern county of Panghyon near the China-North Korea border. According to reports, the missile flew 930 kilometers at an altitude of 2,800 kilometers and landed in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

If fired at a standard trajectory, the missile can have an operational range of over 6000 kilometers, long enough to hit the west coast of the US.

As Pyongyang chose to test-fire its new missile on July 4, which marks Independence Day of the US, the move was widely interpreted as a deliberately provocative and defiant act against Washington. A dismayed and angry Donald Trump, the US president, took to Twitter shortly after the launch to denounce North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and urge China to do more to rein in its reckless neighbor.

“North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?”, Trump said on Twitter.

Examining the developments, we believe the reason why North Korea has continued to test-fire ballistic missiles one after another in recent months regardless of international pressure and denunciation is because it is desperate to gain as many bargaining chips as possible so that it can negotiate a peace deal with the US on an equal footing in the days ahead.

It appears the seemingly reckless and even crazy Kim Jong-un could be in fact a clever strategic thinker. He could be very familiar with the key western military doctrine: “if you want peace, prepare for war.”

The problem, however, is this: Can Pyongyang’s provocative act and sabre-rattling really force the US to back down and go back to the negotiation table? Besides, will China, which has long been using the North Korea issue as a lever against the US, really allow reconciliation between Pyongyang and Washington to happen?

And the issue is further compounded by the intense strategic rivalry between South Korea, Japan and Russia in the region. The fact that each power has its own secret agenda can probably explain why the so-called six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program that took place between 2003 and 2009 almost came to nothing.

As to whether the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula can eventually be defused, it will depend, to a significant extent, on how much further Beijing’s patience with the escalating brinkmanship of Pyongyang can be stretched. It is because after all, despite some strains in the relationship since Kim Jong-un took power in 2011, China still retains considerable influence over North Korea.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson of China’s foreign ministry strongly urged North Korea to observe United Nations resolution and stop launching missiles.

However, since China has been insisting on resolving the North Korea crisis through dialogue since day 1, it is believed Beijing will continue to stick to this principle despite mounting pressure from Washington and is therefore unlikely to take any heavy-handed or drastic measure to put Pyongyang in its place at least in the short run.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 5

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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