The Korean Peninsula flashpoint has literally returned to global center stage with the surprise launch on December 12 of a North Korean rocket using what is in effect long-range ballistic missile technology. Politically, this was a boost to the domestic prestige of Kim Jong-Un’s regime, almost a year to the day since the death of his father Kim Jong-Il.
In strategy, geopolitics and nuclear arms control, the implications are complex and mostly unpleasant. As with all of North Korea’s international provocations, the full meaning is far from clear – and much will depend on decisions made not in Pyongyang, Seoul, Tokyo or even Washington, but rather in Beijing.
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In isolation, the launch is not a regional security game-changer and the only surprise is the timing, not the fact.
The launch will only deepen Japanese and South Korean strategic anxieties, as previous research has suggested. Each step closer to anything resembling a workable North Korean nuclear deterrent that can reach American territory will make the defence communities in Tokyo and Seoul nervous about the long-term willingness of the U.S. alliance to protect their nations in all circumstances. That said, Pyongyang remains a long way from such a capability, and warhead miniaturisation and missile accuracy remain critical hurdles.
The launch is a timely reminder that the U.S. rebalancing or pivot strategy to Asia need not be solely about China. This will damage the efforts by China and pivot-sceptics in third countries to portray the strategy as some kind of destabilising containment move.
The timing may seem largely auspicious for Pyongyang, but not entirely. On the eve of his second Administration, Obama may well feel newly confident about a generally robust Asia strategy which has seen most regional players hew to America’s side rather than China’s, let alone North Korea’s.
While the flight may have been deliberately timed ahead of the Japanese and South Korean elections on December 16 and 19, this may redound badly for North Korea and its frustrated protector China. In Japan, there is growing high-level bipartisanship in favour of a more "normal" defense posture and the further consolidation of the alliance with the United States. The launch will harden Japanese views, especially the firm national security stance of LDP leader Shinzo Abe, and already-strained relations between China and Japan will be among the collateral damage. In South Korea, on the other hand, attitudes will remain more divided along partisan lines about whether defiance or engagement of North Korea is the right approach, and this launch might only sharpen those differences.
The ultimate impact of the launch on regional security will depend on China. So far there is little overt sign of Beijing’s abandoning its policy, adopted in 2010, of ultimately tolerating Pyongyang’s provocations. But there must be a quiet internal debate at least, with the new leadership in Beijing embarrassed by North Korea’s wilful indifference to China’s public (and presumably private) calls for restraint. The crucial question remains whether and when the American leadership and new Chinese leaderships may be willing to pursue new understandings on how to manage North Korea. The best outcome of this week’s fireworks would be to nudge the two top powers of Indo-Pacific Asia in that direction.