After the successful launch of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on November 29, 2017, North Korea announced that it was capable of attacking the continental United States. Although this is not the first time Pyongyang has claimed that North America is within range, the missile tested reached a record height of 2,800 miles, roughly 500 more than the one launched last July, setting the record as the most advanced yet in the country’s arsenal.
The test launch came almost two-and-a-half weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump’s 12-day trip to Asia, which included stops in South Korea, China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan, and nine days after Trump re-designated North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.
The United Nations, Japan, South Korea, and the United States condemned the launch, and U.S. diplomats engaged in further discussions with their Chinese counterparts. As tensions reach new heights, SFS faculty weighed in on the reasons for the ICBM launch, its consequences, and the alternatives for U.S. policy towards North Korea.
Launch Timing Raises Questions, Concerns
The 53-minute test flight, launched right before 3 a.m. from South Pyongan province, raised questions about its timing, intended message and potential consequences. Dennis Wilder, Assistant Professor of Practice in the Asian Studies Program and senior fellow at the Initiative for US-China Dialogue on Global Issues, thinks the timing of the launch indicates Pyongyang’s determination to withstand international pressure.
“Kim wants us to believe that the new pressure from the U.S. and China has not had an impact. At a minimum, it looks like it forced him to launch at night fearing a preemptive strike,” Wilder commented to Voice of America.
U.N. Convenes National Security Council
The launch prompted an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council. During the meeting, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley called on all countries to sever diplomatic ties with North Korea and cut off exports of crude oil.
Chinese cooperation is crucial to the implementation of the latter resolution, a key tenet of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy. However, SFS graduate student Mathew Ha (MASIA’18) warns that a ban on crude oil exports should only be instituted if financial sanctions remain in place.
“A crude oil ban could certainly negatively impact North Korean citizens. That is why Washington should only pursue one if it plans on continuing financial sanctions, including those targeting Chinese banks that help North Korea evade sanctions and fund its nuclear weapons and missile programs,” Ha wrote, in a policy brief for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Ambassador Haley publicly asserted that the launch brings the United States closer to war. In addition to public condemnation, Wilder stressed the importance of effective U.S. responses to the precarious situation on Fox News.
The North Korean leader is hell bent on having his nuclear capability and we’ve got to find a way to stop him.
Wilder also strongly advocated for the suspension of Chinese crude oil exports, criticizing China’s continued resistance: “China can’t just keep their head in the sand on this issue; it’s getting too dangerous.”
U.S., Regional Powers Mull Over Responses
Chinese and U.S. representatives engaged in a closed-door meeting at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. just hours after North Korea launched its missile test. Though officials assured the public that the talks were a long-scheduled dialogue about crisis management and communication between the two countries, the timing of the meeting and Chinese official statements about it indicate something more.
China has long been averse to discussing contingencies involving North Korea, but Oriana Skylar Mastro, Assistant Professor of Security Studies, sees signs of change.
“Things are shifting right now in both China and the United States,” Mastro told the Associated Press. “There seems to be an opening, this type of discussion is difficult among friends. It’s much more difficult between potential adversaries, but absolutely necessary.”
Mastro warns that the outbreak of war with North Korea would have devastating consequences.
The type of war that might break out is one that would be more costly than anything that generations of Americans have experienced.
Michael Green, Chair in Modern and Contemporary Japanese Politics and Foreign Policy, noticed a concerning trend in South Korea – U.S. strategic relations, which he wrote about in Korea Joongang Daily.
Though Green maintains that President Trump’s trip to Asia was relatively successful, he notes a series of suspicious developments following successful negotiations between Seoul and Beijing that resulted in the cessation of Chinese embargoes on South Korean firms.
South Korea denied making any promises or assurances, but Green worries that the negotiation confirms China’s belief that embargoes and economic pressures work. Their success reduces the incentives for China to apply pressure to North Korea, while also undermining South Korea’s trustworthiness among its allies.
Though Green is confident that the foundations of the U.S. – South Korea alliance remain solid, he also highlights potential problems with South Korea’s diplomatic approach.
“The problem is that when [South] Korea focuses on maintaining just the right balance among the major powers, it only invites greater rivalry among those powers for strategic influence on the peninsula. History teaches that the reality of Korean foreign policy strategy is often not as important as how the major powers around Korea perceive that strategy,” Green writes.
Why China Won’t Rescue North Korea
U.S. policymakers have long believed that China would intervene on behalf of North Korea, in the case of a conflict with the United States, in order to stem refugee flows or otherwise contain the damage. Mastro argued in Foreign Affairs that the relationship between China and North Korea has evolved in recent years and this assumption might be incorrect.
Over the last two decades, Chinese relations with North Korea have deteriorated drastically behind the scenes, as China has tired of North Korea’s insolent behavior and reassessed its own interests on the peninsula. Today, China is no longer wedded to North Korea’s survival. In the event of a conflict or the regime’s collapse, Chinese forces would intervene to a degree not previously expected—not to protect Beijing’s supposed ally but to secure its own interests.
Proceeding With Caution
With North Korea testing an ICBM capable of hitting the continental United States and moreover detonating its most powerful nuclear artifact yet, SFS professor and former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright criticized the Trump administration for wavering over multiple approaches in the New York Times:
“Instead of offering a clear strategy, President Trump has jumped from one approach to the next, scarcely pausing long enough for observers, including key allies such as South Korea and Japan, to catch their breath,” Albright writes.
She suggested that it is time for U.S. policy to the rogue regime to turn to diplomacy, which she argues has been neglected since the end of the Clinton administration.
“For too long, American policy has searched in vain for a deft, simple solution to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The hope has been that the regime in Pyongyang would change, or that China would force it to capitulate,” Albright wrote. “The result has been a backward slide, forfeiting prior gains without substituting anything new.”
It is time for a more realistic and serious approach — one that exhausts the possibilities of diplomacy, protects our citizens and does not plunge the world into an unnecessary war.
Shoring Up Deterrence
Deterrence against North Korea’s aggression is still possible, according to Green, writing for Korea Joongang Daily, and that is where he advocates that U.S.-ROK strategy should focus.
The North Korean threat is clearly growing more serious, but time is not “running out” for deterrence and containment to work. Nor is time “running out” for a diplomatic resolution that was never likely to begin with. Time is ultimately on the side of the United States and Korea — powerful democracies that have weathered many serious threats in the past. It is North Korea that will eventually pass into the footnotes of history. The key is to ensure that this happens peacefully by reinforcing our strengths and not producing the kind of panic North Korea hopes to use for its own leverage.