North Korea missile test puts ball in USA’s court

North Korea said Tuesday it has successfully tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile in what would be a major step forward in its nuclear weapons programme. Coming in the early hours of Independence Day in the United States, the test appears to be a provocation aimed at Washington.

Official North Korean images of a reported intercontinental ballistic missile test on 4 July 2017.
Official North Korean images of a reported intercontinental ballistic missile test on 4 July 2017. KCNA/via Reuters

Pyongyang said the test marked the “final step” in its nuclear development and that it can now “strike anywhere on earth”.

More tempered, the United States, Japan and South Korea judged it to be an intermediate-range missile, while at least one US scientist claimed it could reach Alaska.

Mark Hibbs, a senior fellow in the nuclear programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggests viewing the test as part of Pyongyang’s long-term nuclear ambitions.

“This is a weapons programme that has a very long trajectory, and it’s run by a pariah state that is focused on its survival,” he says.

“Eventually, unless there are pieces of information that we’re missing, they’ll have a nuclear weapon that they can deliver that will cause mass destruction on the soil of an adversary, and right now the main adversary is the United States.”

The test came in the early hours of the highly symbolic Independence Day holiday in the US.

“[North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un is not known for doing things coincidentally: he is a master of grand gestures, and it clearly isn’t by accident this test was carried out on 4 July,” says Laura Rockwood, executive director of the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.

“I believe fundamentally what they want to do is to get the Americans’ attention.”

The test certainly did succeed in catching the attention of US President Donald Trump, whose tweets continued a trend of voicing impatience with Pyongyang and pressuring China to do more to rein in its neighbour.

Whether China feels it is in a position to do more is another matter.

“The Chinese view, contrary to what you’re hearing in the United States, is that the problem should be solved by the United States and not China,” says Mark Hibbs.

“China is asserting itself militarily in its region, and it knows that if the North Koreans continue to escalate, that’s going to prompt Taiwan, South Korea and Japan to be less accommodating on defence. […] But it also wants to keep North Korea where it is, because the Chinese do not want the United States or the South Koreans on their border.”

One option Trump did not evoke was put forward by China along with Russia, which in a joint statement called upon the US to halt joint military exercises with South Korea and for North Korea to reciprocate with a moratorium on missile tests.

“It might be feasible to get North Korea to agree to starting a freeze on testing of nuclear weapons and missiles in exchange perhaps for the US freezing its military exercises with the South Koreans,” Laura Rockwood argues, adding that would require dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington.

“The unfortunate thing is it’s such a difficult political moment given the views of the current administration in the US and the fact that this was clearly an exercise by the North Koreans to get the Americans’ attention. I think the US would have to get over that peak and say, ‘you’ve got our attention, now let’s sit down and talk about this in all seriousness.’”


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