On the morning of Sunday, 3 September, the detection of a 6.3 magnitude earthquake by Chinese seismologists alerted the world to the detonation of North Korea’s latest – its sixth – hydrogen bomb test. The underground blast sent tremors that terrified civilians in neighbouring China, South Korea and Japan and shockwaves were felt as far afield as the US West Coast. The nuclear test is the latest in a series of incidents to have escalated the rapidly growing crisis in the Asia-Pacific region over the past two months.
A series of tests
In July, Pyongyang gave the order for two Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) to be fired at a lofted trajectory into the Sea of Japan. The first – timed to coincide with American Independence Day on July the 4th – landed in waters inside Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The second, if fired at a shallower trajectory, appeared capable of striking potential targets on the US mainland such as New York and Boston, US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) experts stated at the time.
However, the North Koreans had not yet tested the suspected capability of its medium to long range missiles, having backed away from its earlier threat to target US overseas territory Guam. That was until 29 August, less than a week prior to Sunday’s nuclear test, when the population of Hokkaido, mainland Japan’s northern-most island, awoke to the news – delivered by J-Alert text – that a North Korean missile had entered Japanese airspace. Air-raid warnings advised residents to seek shelter underground.
Described by Japanese premier Abe Shinzo as an “unprecedented, serious and grave threat” to the nation’s security, the Hwasong-12 intermediate range missile was the first ballistic weapon fired by North Korea to have travelled over its eastern neighbour. It was also the first of the 80-plus missiles launched during Kim Jong-un’s tenure as Supreme Leader of the DPRK thought capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
With Sunday’s nuclear test, the regime now claims to have developed a warhead of “great destructive power” small enough to be fitted to missiles of the kind test-launched in earlier weeks. In a climate of increasingly bellicose rhetoric on both sides, this is an incendiary development. The threat of conflict is palpable.
A regional, not global crisis
Even before Sunday’s test, President Donald Trump’s team had sought to qualify the American leader’s increasingly hawkish remarks. Last week, Defence Secretary James Mattis appeared to contradict the president’s tweeted claim that “Talking is not the answer!” when dealing with North Korea by insisting that the US is “never out of diplomatic solutions”. With the potential of a nuclear threat to the US likely to dominate news coverage of the crisis in the coming weeks, the far more pressing threat posed to North Korea’s immediate neighbours must not be overlooked.
The current set-to has been a long time in the making. While recent developments are certainly worrying, they simply provide a further link in the chain of cause and effect, action and reaction that characterises an already convoluted geopolitical situation.
The August 29th missile’s launch date is itself auspicious as it commemorates the 107-year anniversary of the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty. In this context, the latest round of sabre-rattling can be interpreted as Pyongyang’s response to what it sees as the equally provocative recent military activities of South Korea and Japan.
One week prior to the missile’s launch, US and South Korean troops began their annual Ulchi-Freedom Guardian joint military exercises. These war games, which consisted mostly of computerised simulations, also included plans for the defence of the South in the case of an invasion from the north; and preparations for a potential pre-emptive strike.
This follows on from Operation Northern Viper, a US-Japan joint contingency operation conducted last month from the Misawa air-base in northern Honshu, Japan’s largest island. The US Department of Defence reports that forces from the 3rd Marine Division utilised the occasion to fire their own High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) for the first time on Japanese soil, thus testing the readiness of the Misawa airbase to function as a “power projection hub” in the region.
Such manoeuvres, states US Air Force Col. R. Scott Jobe, commander of the 35th Fighter Wing, are designed – much like North Korea’s own localised displays of power – to “showcase the joint and bilateral capabilities” of the US throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
North Korean state media readily pounces on such pronouncements as evidence of US designs for hegemony in the region. The increasingly visible nature of joint US-Japan/South Korea defence mechanisms also feeds the narrative, often voiced in China and rapidly gaining traction in the West, that Kim Jong-un’s actions – so often painted as volatile and unpredictable in Western media – are in fact the logical reaction to perceived acts of aggression.
Cai Jian, Executive Director of the Centre for Korean Studies and Associate Professor of International Studies at Fudan University, suggests that North Korea’s weapons programme is “not about attacking others but [about] self-defense”, less a tool of aggression than a means of ensuring “North Korea’s regime safety”. Nevertheless, the reluctance of either the US military or the Japanese Self Defence Force to attempt to shoot the missile down exposed a distinct lack of confidence, on the part of North Korea’s rivals, and could serve to embolden them in the future.
Reacting to the threat
It is now possible that, in the wake of last Tuesday’s launch, both South Korea and Japan will push ahead with improved, yet previously unpopular, defence measures that had until recently seemed unlikely to be implemented.
In July, the newly installed left-wing government of South Korea incurred the displeasure of China when President Moon Jae-in reversed an earlier pledge to oppose the temporary installation of controversial US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) equipment in the country. Last Tuesday’s launch, plus the subsequent nuclear test, will no doubt strengthen Seoul’s resolve to integrate THAAD into the nation’s defences, despite China’s opposition to the move. China opposes THAAD as it believes that the early warning that the system would provide in the case of an attack on the US mainland diminishes its own nuclear deterrent, thus weakening its strategic global position relative to the US.
In Japan, these latest episodes in the rapidly escalating Asia-Pacific crisis are likely to have an even more far reaching impact. It has long been the goal of Abe Shinzo’s leading Liberal Democratic Party to amend Japan’s pacifistic constitution. On 28 August, the day before the latest missile launch, the Ministry of Defence revealed that as part of its fiscal plans for 2018, it will request a sixth straight increase on defence spending under Abe’s leadership. If approved, this spending will fund the exploration of acquiring ‘counter-attack capability’, a direct violation of pacifistic policies in place in Japan since the end of the Second World War.
In the coming months, Japanese popular opposition to constitutional reform will be severely tested, particularly now that North Korea’s nuclear threat has once again been emphasised. It remains to be seen if and how Abe and the LDP intend to utilise these events to their own advantage. As for the US, President Trump’s staff should continue to pour water on the “fire and fury” approach of the man who holds the nuclear codes; however the Trump administration’s erratic approach to foreign policy adds unpredictability to an already dangerous melting pot. If not, what is now a crisis could easily become a catastrophe.