Following North Korea's embarrassing attempt at a rocket launch earlier this month, it is still not clear what the government will do to maintain the credibility of its hawkish posture. On April 24, Pyongyang issued a statement, saying that the South could be defeated in the event of a war in the range of 3-4 minutes. Short of nuclear sterilization on a maddening scale, it is hard to imagine a contemporary weapon that can do that in the allotted period of time.
At a military parade two days after the failed launch, the leadership presented a new long-range missile to be included in the country’s already threatening missile inventory. Uncertainty is also centering on the potential for a third nuclear test at some point later this year.
Russia also admitted that Iran and North Korea represent a credible nuclear threat to the Federation. As a result, Moscow is effectively bridging its positions closer to those of NATO on the question of ballistic missile defence. China, while having an interest in maintaining the regime in North Korea, reaffirmed its commitment to North Korea, with weaponry sales included, even if the leadership in Beijing may be lukewarm on a deeper level – they did not stop the UN’s condemnation of the launch.
I have said before that a war on the peninsula would be disastrous for all sides. For this reason, it seems that Pyongyang is only looking to restore credibility following the failed launch. From a purely technological point of view, if North Korea makes improvements on the Unha-3 rocket and attempts another launch in 2012 or 2013, the chances for it to be successful rise. If it maintains its current momentum,we might indeed see a successful North Korean missile launch soon.(provided, of course, it still has financial incentive to do so in light of its starving population).
Effectively, Southeast Asia’s black box still makes North Korea a nearly unmanageable risk factor, despite the history of its cyclical behavior of provoking tensions through some act (nuclear test, Cheonan, long-range missile test), then receding somewhat within the format of the six-party talks to encourage negotiation on the salient issues (food aid for nuclear openness) and then provoking the international community again. It is a deadly game of cat and mouse, and one misfire might produce a horrific domino effect in the region.
China has the best ability to influence Pyongyang, while Washington can only maintain the military deterrent in South Korea since it lacks diplomatic leverage – cutting food aid has not changed North Korea’s behavior. For its own security reasons, Beijing would rather have a buffer on its flank, but it might pressure the North into a more compromising position, because its own security is threatened by the country’s erratic behavior and top planners in the Celestial Empire are certainly not ignorant of the fact.
An external consideration might be India’s recent missile test of the Agni-V rocket, with its ability to reach Beijing. It is a point of contention between the two superpowers, and also a hint that New Delhi is pushing for a wider regional role that may well include the Pacific within the next 20-25 years. Important to note here is that India also falls within North Korea’s missile range. While India is conscious of the threat, it is when it becomes a regularly recurring theme of Delhi’s foreign policy that we might see a qualitative shift on the Korean question. The tensions are high now, but the future promises to be yet more interesting.