North Korea missile program adds uncertainty

Appearing in Australian Financial Review, Defence feature, 8 March 2017


The past few months has seen a ratcheting-up of the nuclear threat posed by North Korea and there are no solutions on the horizon.

A key event was the successful launch of a Pukguksong-2 missile from North Korean territory into the Sea of Japan in mid-February. The missile was apparently launched from a mobile launcher and used solid fuel, much more reliable than the liquid fuel that has been used by North Korea in the past for land launches. Solid fuel has been used in successful submarine launches, and now the technology has been transferred to land launches.

That launch was followed up by a test a few days ago in which North Korea fired four ballistic missiles from the Tongchang-ri region near the border with China. Three of them landed in Japan’s maritime exclusive economic zone, meaning they covered a distance of about a thousand kilometres.

The latest round of launches suggests that North Korea is trying to develop a ‘second strike’ capacity, so it would be capable of launching missiles even if its central command facilities were destroyed.

The significance of the successful missile launch is underlined by a successful nuclear test conducted last September at the Punggy-ru test site. The device had a yield of at least ten kilotons – some Western intelligence agencies say up to 30 kilotons – making it larger than the Hiroshima bomb. The test constitutes a landmark in the country’s nuclear program.

So far, there is no hard evidence that the North Korean government has been able to miniaturise a nuclear weapon to fit into a missile – although the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has claimed that it can. The general view amongst Western analysts is that that step is probably not far away. Assuming that missile development continues along its current line Japan as well as South Korea will be soon be in range from land missiles, and Hawaii and Alaska, and even the US Pacific Coast would be in the danger zone from submarine-launched missiles. North Korea has tested inter-continental missiles, and if these can be developed the list of possible targets grows exponentially.

“I would describe the nuclear weapon capacity of North Korea as rudimentary but developing,” says Professor Ramesh Thakur, director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament at Crawford School of Public Policy at ANU. “Having said that, we should realise that they have shown the capacity to make advances very quickly. The next thing to look for is a successful test involving a nuclear weapon and a missile together. That would be a major breakthrough.”

The launch of the missile in February was apparently designed to coincide with a meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US President Donald Trump. It may have been an attempt to test Trump, who is largely an unknown quantity on foreign policy. Trump’s response to the launch was to re-affirm the support of the US for Japan (but not, interestingly, South Korea).

“There is a chance here for a two-track approach, with engagement and dialogue on one and threats and sanctions on the other,” says Professor Thakur. “One way to get North Korea to the bargaining table might be to include talks on converting the armistice held over from the Korean War into a peace treaty, which North Korea wants. So far North Korea does not show any willingness to give up its weapons. They define ‘denuclearisation’ of the Korean Peninsula to include the withdrawal of the American nuclear umbrella, while to the US and South Korea it means the irreversible dismantling of the North’s nuclear weapon program. Neither of those is going to happen. But North Korea might be amenable to a freeze on development and testing. And if there are to be talks of some kind, China needs to be involved.”

China has long been the critical supporter of North Korea but Beijing recently announced that it was imposing a strict limit on coal imports from North Korea, a move which would deal a crucial blow to the isolated North Korean economy. Whether the announcement will be followed by action is not yet known but the move opens a new front.

“I believe that China was sending a message to the North Koreans about pulling back and lowering the temperature,” Professor Thakur suggests. “Interestingly, the North Koreans said in a government publication that ‘China was dancing to the US tune’, which says a lot about the way Pyongyang sees the world. Of course, China would never respond to US pressure. Beijing’s move on coal comes because they see it as good for China to shorten North Korea’s leash every now and then.

“The level of instability might have increased in the past few months but there is also the opportunity for advances over the coming year. The key question will be whether the Americans are willing to move past the belligerent language and put forward some serious options.”

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