North Korea has demonstrated its determination to up the ante in its confrontation with the world community by attempting to fire a missile from its east coast on May 31. It exploded shortly after liftoff – an unusual streak of flops even by the checkered standards of North Korea. This was the latest in a string of unsuccessful ballistic missile tests as the country tries to advance its weapons program in defiance of the United Nations and great powers, including its regional ally China and friendly neighbor Russia – both countries joining other UN Security Council (UNSC) members in strong condemnation of the tests. The UNSC unanimously adopted a resolution in March considered to be the toughest sanctions package in history imposed on the defiant country.
Media reports suggest it was an intermediate-range Musudan missile. After flying for about two or three seconds it exploded in the air. North Korea attempted three test launches of the Musudan in April, all of which failed.
Pyongyang claimed to have successfully tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile in April and released photos of the launch at the time.
The apparent success of the submarine-launched ballistic missile, along with the completion of North Korea’s first launch-capable ballistic missile submarine, is ample cause for concern anywhere within intermediate range. Additionally, there's the KN-08 mobile intercontinental ballistic missile being developed by North Korea.
That system boasts an estimated range of 9,000 kilometers (5,500 miles).
Indeed, tensions in Northeast Asia have been running high since Pyongyang conducted its fourth nuclear test in January and followed that with a satellite launch and test launches of various missiles.
There is nothing new when North Korea challenges the world, but this is the first time South Korea takes a game changing decision to launch a program to counter the nuclear threat with a new weapon system of its own. A high-ranking South Korean official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the country’s navy is also developing its own submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), to be installed on new South Korean submarines.
According to him, «On the 3,000-ton Jangbogo-III submarine, which is currently under production, we are installing a vertical launching pad». He went on to say that the SLBM is being developed under the aegis of the Agency of Defense Development and is expected to be completed by 2020.
The decision is a clear sign that the North Korean actions have triggered an arms race in the region. It happens against the background of US presidential candidate Donald Trump making statements that he would not rule out a US withdrawal from East Asia, and would consider the possibility of both South Korean and Japan going nuclear – so they would be able to defend themselves without American assistance.
Trump’s statements reflect changes in the American mindset; otherwise he would not be that popular.
Some South Korean politicians call for launching a nuclear program.
In its turn, South Korea going nuclear will increase the probability of a nuclear Japan, Taiwan and other advanced countries of Southeast Asia joining the nuclear arms race.
There is another aspect of the problem. North Korea’s actions provide pretext for the United States to deploy elements of its global ballistic missile defense (BMD) in Asia-Pacific. The program evokes concern in Russia and China as a threat to nuclear stability reducing the capability to deliver a nuclear counterstrike if attacked. The United States and Japan have already deployed Aegis-equipped destroyers with Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) interceptors, Patriot Advanced Capability 3 (PAC-3) batteries, early warning sensors, and advanced radars to meet the threat.
Discussions are on the way regarding the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea.
Beside South Korea, Japan has considered deploying THAAD.
Four of the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s six Aegis destroyers are currently equipped with BMD-capable SM-3 interceptors. Japan will upgrade two more by fiscal year 2018. In addition, two more Aegis ships will be procured by fiscal year 2020 to increase the total to eight. The current SM-3 interceptors are based on the Block 1A system. Japan and the United States are jointly developing the Block 2A system, which will have an increased interception range.
The United States, South Korea, and Japan agreed on June 4 to step up trilateral cooperation to deal with North Korea's nuclear and missile threats. US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, his South Korean counterpart Han Min-goo and Japan's Gen Nakatani came to an understanding in a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue that «the partners face common challenges». Thus, the North Korean nuclear tests are used by the United States, South Korea and Japan to justify joining the regional arms race and US ballistic missile defense efforts that undermine global security.
Both Russia and China have strongly opposed the deployment of US Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system in US forward bases abroad. Both Moscow and Beijing believe that the US BMD system could threaten regional peace and stability and adversely affect their nuclear deterrent capabilities. Russia is undergoing a modernization of its nuclear forces in order to maintain parity with the United States.
These are the far-going consequences of North Korea's extreme adventurist policy.
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North Korea’s nuclear program has been widely condemned by international community. Despite all the Security Council resolutions and sanctions on North Korea, nothing so far has prevented it from conducting nuclear tests and launching missiles. The blatant challenge is not accepted by the UN Security Council (UNSC). It calls for collective, not unilateral, actions. The Six Party talks shut down in 2009 must be revived; the UNSC members must continue to coordinate activities. The positions of the West, the US, Russia and China on the North Korean program by and large coincide. This is also the time when the United States and Russia could come up with a joint initiative on the problem, or, at least, hold immediate consultations to make precise what exactly they could achieve together. If the two great powers can cooperate in Syria, they can certainly cooperate on the problem of North Korea. This is the issue that should unite the great powers, rather than divide them. And that’s where the US should join together with Russia instead of using North Korean nuclear program as a pretext for launching a dangerous arms race with unpredictable consequences in the region. This policy may backlash against those who implement it.