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What We Can Learn From North Korea's Latest Missile Launch

The regime shows no sign of giving up its nuclear program anytime soon: after all, it is one - though not the only - of the the core backbones of its continued survival, and, with reluctance, we need to recognise this, and work with what we have in front of us, here and now.
hansslegers via Getty Images

A missile that flew before plunging into the sea is a sight the world has become accustomed to regarding North Korea's ongoing nuclear and missile tests. Yet yesterday's threat to Hokkaido was both "more of the same" and yet "different": notched up one level, it acted as a catalyst to reignite tensions between two enemies of old, and further fragmented the division between the North Korea-China and US-Japan-ROK alliances. (We must remember that North Korea-Japan tensions continue to be plagued by the issue of abduction of Japanese citizens into North Korea during the late 1970s and early 1980s, which remains, as of yet, unresolved.)

The recent missile launch has been described by President Abe as posing an "unprecedented" threat, and an emergency UN Meeting is being held to discuss how best to 'resolve' the issue of North Korea, after its recent implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2371 on August 5, which outlined increasingly targeted sanctions on North Korea, particularly its export industry. The pointed response of South Korea following Tuesday's missile launch was to hold almost immediate live-fire drills of eight MK84 bombs, at the Taebaek Pilsung Firing Range, a move that I am sure has not gone unnoticed within Pyongyang: South Korea 'bombing itself', as described by a prominent scholar of Korean politics.

What can we learn from this? It is not just that South Korea remains evermore determined to make Kim Jong-un aware that any provocation will not go unnoticed, or fall on deaf ears. More importantly, the idea of nuclear deterrence and posturing has been clearly witnessed: threaten the Korean Peninsula and its allies, and South Korea, the USA, and its allies will have the capacity to respond much more forcefully. Is this enough to deter North Korea, or will it simply continue to perpetuate the back-and-forth of provocation and response?

The recent test deserves full marks for creating chaos and sentiments of "Korean War 2.0" on the Peninsula, yet to move forward in this ongoing debate about what to do about North Korea, the world needs to admit that if the UN decides to implement more sanctions, it is highly likely that North Korea will continue its well-trodden path of evading them: it is an expert in this act after all. This is not to say that sanctions are futile, but we need to think about North Korea in realistic terms. Nuclear posturing and rhetoric will continue, hence Trump - despite being an alleged master of "the art of the deal" - needs to calculate how best to make a "deal" with North Korea, a country that continues its status quo survival strategy not just of perpetuating the ruling Kim family regime, but the constant creation and manifestation of its external enemy of the USA, embedded deeply in both its political decision-making, and society.

So how will Trump respond? Whilst any direct military or nuclear response seems unlikely, the ongoing commitment of Trump and Tillerson towards 'peaceful resolutions' to conflict initiation from North Korea seems likely to continue. Alliances will strengthen as a result of this recent launch, yet how China will respond, beyond its all too-common response of warning and calling for de-escalation of tensions and nuclear development of North Korea, will form a crucial element of whether North Korea can continue to remain close to its age-old ally, as North Korea's ongoing actions continue to push Washington and its allies in opposite directions to the North Korea-China alliance. The response of the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Tuesday was the statement that "[we are] now at a tipping point approaching a crisis. At the same time there is an opportunity to reopen peace talks". What this will mean in practice remains to be seen.

For now, it is vital that the US recognises that at some point, they may have to pursue some bitter-tasting and highly unsavory options in order to address the North Korean 'problem' in as appropriate a way as possible, to ensure that its allies south of the 38th Parallel do not have to suffer the consequences of a possible military confrontation. Moreover, we need to start thinking about how best to combine ongoing pressure with, albeit reluctantly, putting something on the table that could ebb North Korea's constant provocative threats to international order and security. It may be in the form of economic or humanitarian assistance, or, more importantly for Kim, perhaps some concession on the North's desire for a freeze in US-ROK military exercises. At present, President Moon's strategy of so far trying to enter into conversation with North Korea through military dialogue and reunions of divided families is not enough to start a long and tumultuous process for reconciling a better future for the Korean Peninsula, and East Asian regional stability. North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear and missile development anytime soon. To try and 'talk' to them with this aim in mind is unlikely to bear much fruit, if any. Any concessions on nuclear and missile development should be a result of any talks, not the tool by which one enters them.

Furthermore, let us not forget - Seoul has 10 million inhabitants: consider the consequences of a military 'option' by the USA on Pyongyang. As for the 25 million living in North Korea, we must not forget them: North Korea is a real country with real people, and this must always be borne in mind. The regime shows no sign of giving up its nuclear program anytime soon: after all, it is one - though not the only - of the the core backbones of its continued survival, and, with reluctance, we need to recognize this, and work with what we have in front of us, here and now.

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