The latest test of a far-reaching ballistic missile by North Korea came only days after South Korea’s new president Moon Jae-in was inaugurated, saying that he was prepared to engage in diplomatic talks with his northern neighbor.
The missile test, which reportedly proves the North has achieved ballistic capability to launch a weapon strike on US territory, also follows the announcement earlier this month by President Donald Trump indicating his willingness to hold face-to-face talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Trump last week promptly invited the newly elected President Moon to Washington to discuss the Korean crisis following his election on May 9. Moon Jae-in, a leftwing human rights lawyer, has taken a more conciliatory attitude towards North Korea than his rightwing predecessors in Seoul. He also recently voiced criticism of Washington’s militarist stance towards adversary North Korea and has called instead for regional talks with China and Japan in order to try to denuclearize the peninsula.
It may seem rather strange, therefore, that Kim Jong-un ordered the missile test at the weekend. Predictably, he earned rebukes from Washington and South Korea, who denounced the test as yet another provocation and violation of United Nations sanctions. The US, South Korea and Japan called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. Thus, the latest missile test might appear to show that North Korea is recklessly spurning delicate openings for diplomatic negotiations.
According to media reports citing North Korea’s official KCNA news agency, the most recent rocket test evinces a new kind of ballistic engine, which brings the communist state much closer to obtaining an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Reaching an altitude of over 2,100 kilometers, the Hwasong-12 missile is calculated to have the capability of reaching a target up to 4,500 kms if it were flown at a lower, normal trajectory. That gives North Korea the range to strike US territory of Guam island in the Pacific. The missile was deliberately fired at an acute upwards angle so that it would not infringe neighboring territories. It fell into the Sea of Japan, within the territorial waters of North Korea.
For a strike on the US west coast, North Korea would need to have a missile capable of flying 8,000 kms. Which it does not yet have.
As a result of the weekend test, the Trump administration reacted with calls for all countries to impose tougher sanctions on North Korea. US ambassador the UN Nikki Haley said Washington and its allies would «tighten the screws» on Kim Jong-un.
Russia, however, took a more measured approach and wisely pointed to the more comprehensive formula that is needed in order to resolve the protracted Korean crisis. Speaking at an economic summit in Beijing on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the latest North Korean missile test was «counter-productive» and «dangerous». However, he also pointed squarely to the bigger picture, which is absolutely key to finding a way to avoid a disastrous confrontation.
Without specifically mentioning the US by name, Putin said that Washington must desist from «intimidating» North Korea. He called on all parties to «find peaceful solutions».
Crucially, the Russian leader broadened the context of the Korean crisis. He said that Washington’s saber-rattling and «regime change» posturing was inciting an «arms race» and eventual conflict.
In recent weeks, numerous senior US officials, including Trump and his defense chief James Mattis, have explicitly threatened North Korea with a pre-emptive military attack. The US conduct of so-called «war games» by nuclear-capable warships, submarines and aircraft has escalated off the Korean Peninsula, while Washington issues ultimatums to Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program and testing of ballistic missiles.
Given this context of American aggression, the latest missile test by North Korea appears not so much a reckless act, and more one that is a resolute statement of what it sees as its right to self-defense.
Christopher Black, an international war crimes lawyer who has long studied the region’s geopolitics, says that North Korea wants to see substantive action by the US and its allies towards a peaceful settlement, not just rhetoric alluding to diplomatic engagement.
Says Black: «Recent signals from Trump and South Korea for diplomacy will be seen by North Korea as a tactical device to get them to delay their defense program. They will trust only concrete actions towards peace, not mere rhetoric, and until US forces leave the peninsula and stop militarily threatening the North, then Pyongyang will assume the status quo of aggression by the US continues. Hence its continued determination to develop its defense. The latest missile test is a clear statement of intent by the North to keep developing the means to defend itself as long as it sees the US wielding force unilaterally.»
The problem here, as always, is arrogant «American exceptionalism». All the consternation in the Western media over North Korea’s newest ballistic missile being able to hit the US territory of Guam omits to acknowledge that the American air base there has heavy B1, B2 and B52 bombers permanently stationed which have been involved in threatening maneuvers against North Korea over the past sixty-four years since the end of the Korean War (1950-53).
The US never signed an armistice at the end of the civil war in which it backed the South. Thus, from North Korea’s point of view, the US is technically still at war with it. And annual «war exercises» by US forces around the Korean Peninsula are seen as a veiled threat. Under international law, this US posturing is an acceptable aggression against North Korea.
Also it must be borne in mind that when North Korea engaged in multi-party talks to halt its nuclear program more than 20 years ago, it was the US under President GW Bush that acted in bad faith by reneging on commitments to supply civilian nuclear technology and other forms of development aid. Sensing betrayal back then, the North resumed its nuclear weapons program, with its first successful underground test occurring in 2009. It has since conducted another four such tests. And a sixth one could be imminent.
As Russia’s President Vladimir Putin noted this week, the US appoints itself the right to demand unilateral disarmament while also threatening regime change. And then when North Korea responds to this imperious bullying from Washington by developing weapons, Washington reacts with even more highhandedness, as if North Korea is singularly affronting international norms.
Diplomacy and dialogue are the only way to resolve the decades-old Korean conflict. But for this to succeed, there should be no preconditions imposed on North Korea to first «show good behavior». Who is the US to demand «good behavior» from anyone?
There must be mutual respect and a mutual recognition from the US that its military forces in the region are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Only by making a full peaceful commitment to Korea through a declared armistice, and by the withdrawal of its forces from the region, can a peaceful way forward be found.
American arrogance is as dangerous as its multitudinous weapons of mass destruction pointed at Korea. And while that monstrous arrogance prevails, then North Korea is entitled to hold resolutely on to its means of defense.