Foreign Policy Blogs

North Korea’s ICBM Test Jeopardizes Regional Balance of Power

North Korea's ICBM Test Jeopardizes Regional Balance of Power

North Korea has proven  its determination once again to fulfill its aspiration as a self-proclaimed Nuclear Power State with a new ballistic test on July 27th. These tests marked the 64th anniversary of the signing of the Korean armistice. According to the US Department of Defense, an intermediate-range missile Hwasong-14 traveled 620 miles from a Jagang base before landing into the Sea of Japan, within Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

This test represents a new challenge to Washington, after Pyongyang conducted its first successful ICBM test last July 1st, which proved that the regime has now reached a new and dreadful stage in the acquisition of preemptive first strike capabilities. Despite the initial predictions, under Kim Jong-un’s leadership, the quest for nuclear weapons has achieved significant breakthroughs. The regime has reached an unprecedented level of sophistication in a number of vital areas, including the development of solid-duel rocket engines and the expansion of mobile launch capabilities.

While Pyongyang has made important progress in the acceleration of its intercontinental range ballistic missile program, North Korea’s regime pushes towards the acquisition of the miniaturization technology considered critical to arm a nuclear warhead. The nation could plausibly achieve this milestone in early 2018 as reported by an anonymous CNN source.

Many observers consider this new test additional evidence about Pyongyang’s determination to deliver a “stern warning to Washington in response to any attempt to alter the peninsula status quo”. North Korea’s warmongering to annihilate the U.S. could now be more than an empty threat since it appears that Pyongyang has acquired the capabilities to hit major cities beyond the West Coast. There is the possibility that the range of the North Korean missile could potentially reach New York City and Washington DC, fostering concerns over Pyongyang’s aggressive intentions.

In the aftermath of the recent missile test, two B-1B Bomber Jets have been deployed to the Korean peninsula, joining Japanese and South Korean fighter jets for training exercise purposes. The United States have also tested the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in Alaska by launching a mock ballistic missile in the Pacific Ocean to prove their ability to repel any incoming threat, and to inspire its allies over Washington’s adamant commitment to contrast any further expansion of Pyongyang’s nuclear threat.

The U.S. Pacific Air Forces Commander, Gen. O’Shaughnessy has warned North Korea that the U.S. may “respond with rapid, lethal and overwhelming force at a time and place of our choosing”, highlights that the defiant regime is getting close to Washington’s redline. Meanwhile, UN Ambassador Haley has stressed that the U.S. could pursue a different pact, including the deployment of “consistent military forces”, rather than relying on the UN Security Council to consider further actions. Washington has expressed its frustration several times for its inability to produce consistent results through conventional diplomatic tools to rein in Pyongyang, even acknowledging two decades of failed attempts to denuclearize North Korea.

Over the years, North Korea’s militaristic propaganda has several times made threats to Washington about serious military retaliations in response to any incoming threat to the survival of the Kim’s dynasty. Amid the growing tensions in the Korean peninsula, Pyongyang has further stressed and justified its path toward the acquisition of nuclear capabilities as a tool to achieve the natural vocation of the DPRK as a nuclear power nation as enshrined in its Constitution. The ultimate strategy is to further consolidate its position and eventually force Washington to normalize relations.

During the Obama Administration, Pyongyang offered a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War in return for Washington’s commitment to renounce the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, a de facto recognition of Pyongyang’s nuclear power status. Such a proposal was promptly rejected by Washington, urging for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula as a prerequisite for restarting any new negotiation.

North Korea has become one of the most pressing priorities for the Trump Administration. Its resolution to tame the belligerent regime under the auspices of Beijing has so far produced little results. Trump’s Administration has also expressed its regrets for China’s limited efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear program, calling for a more radical engagement in restraining Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. Since the Trump Administration took office, regular promises to“take care” of the North Korea issue have characterized the very last days of the previous “strategic patience” strategy.

Trump Administration’s initial entente with China and its attempts to convince Beijing to fully recalibrate its North Korean policy have not produced the expected results, raising tensions culminated in the recent threats of waging a trade war against China. Despite this, Beijing has expressed its frustration for not being able to regain control of the former communist ally, the Chinese leadership remains committed to preventing the collapse of the North Korean regime and the marked geo-strategic alteration that could emerge from the ashes of the hermit kingdom under the auspices of Washington.

Due to the increasing level of North Korea’s nuclear assertiveness, the discussion over a military intervention in the Korean Peninsula has become a recurring topic. The consequence of a military action would certainly expose Washington and its close allies to major retaliation, not to mention the disruption of the fragile balance of the regional security architecture.

Kim Jong-un’s decision to pursue nuclear development along with economic expansion has characterized his personal agenda (byungjin policy) leaves no doubts that the international sanctions and diplomatic pressure from China would not alter the direction taken by the North Korean leadership. North Korean leadership considers itself constantly exposed to foreign attack or internal coup that could destitute Kim’s family sharing the fate of other authoritarian regimes such as Ghaddafi’s Libya in the wake of his decision to abandon the nuclear program in return of expected economic aids under  Washington’s pressure.

North Korea’s regime is now one of the most immediate threats to US national security and also an additional challenge for the Trump Administration, constantly engaged in redefining the contours of American strategic architecture in the Asia-Pacific region. Albeit, Washington remains adamant in instilling faith in its closer allies towards its strategic commitment in the region while confronting the growing threat represented by the North Korean regime, the risk of igniting a conflict in the region, whose catastrophic effects could far outweigh the removal of Kim’s dynastic rule, must be avoided.



Daniele Ermito

Daniele Ermito holds a BA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of Bologna and a MSc in Asian Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His areas of research include Northeast Asia security, the DPRK and Chinese foreign policy. He also writes for Global Risk Insights. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielRmito