North Korea’s done it again. Just when analysts had concluded that the United States threats had probably given it pause for thought, the regime has again showcased its formidable missile program, this time with a potential Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile.
The South Korean military, who for obvious reasons keeps an extremely close eye on developments across the border, observed that the missile travelled a range of 960 kilometres on a lofted trajectory reaching a height of 4,500 kilometres. In terms of simple physics, the missile, if fired on a normal ballistic trajectory, would probably achieve a range of 13,000 kilometres.
That makes it an ICBM class missile, though it is as yet unclear whether it achieved full capability in terms of other parameters like re-entry. The missile finally fell into the Sea of Japan in Japanese Exclusive Economic Zone, which is likely to further alarm an already keyed up Tokyo.
With its earlier claimed test of a ‘hydrogen bomb’, Pyongyang can now claim to be a virtual part of the high table of nuclear weapon states, which had once been frozen at five – the United States, United Kingdom, France, the erstwhile Soviet Union and China – through the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968.
The infamous NPT was a blatantly discriminatory regime, that disallowed anyone else from acquiring nuclear weapons, even while those who did have them showed no intention of giving them up or even reducing them. The doors to this iniquitous club were shattered when Pakistan and India both tested nuclear weapons in 1998.
That roused the ‘nuclear haves’ to fury. But it was also indisputably true that there were several other states that had latent capabilities to go nuclear at any time. Among these “de facto” nuclear states, one is Japan and the other is South Korea. Both are signatories of the NPT, and both have carefully worded mutual defence treaties with the United States.
The Treaty of Mutual Defence between Seoul and the United States, for instance, has a clause whereby each is obliged to “consult” the other in case of an attack. It is the strength of this consultation which is now under doubt, both in Japan and Seoul.
Despite its pacifist constitution, Japan had considered a “defensive” nuclear capability in the 1960s. Today, it has one of the largest reserves of plutonium, estimated at about 10 tons within the country, and another 37 tons overseas. Japan has an efficient space program that uses launch vehicles which can put a 1,800 kg load into the lower earth orbit.
In other words, it has what can be called virtual ICBM capability. In recent times, Japan has begun to step out of the United States’ shadow, admittedly on the urging of Washington itself. Japan’s role in its own defence has expanded from the highly restricted clauses of the original Mutual Cooperation and Security Treaty of 1951, to those delineated by the United States-Japan Defence Guidelines of 1997, where Japan took responsibility not only for its own territories but also for “surrounding areas”, a significant step forward for a country that has endlessly debated even a minimal role in the United Nations Peace Keeping Operations.
Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, this envelope has only expanded. Though voices for a nuclear capability of its own are still muted, it is there, and likely to grow if the United States does not demonstrate a capability to tackle North Korea.
South Korea has an equally impressive capability. The country has 24 nuclear reactors and thousands of tons of spent fuel from which it can extract plutonium. South Korea, in addition, has a thriving missile program of its own and had sent a satellite into orbit as early as January 2013.
It also has its missile defence program with the United States. Far more than Japan, public clamour for its own nuclear deterrence instruments had grown in recent years. According to one source, at least 60 percent favours building nuclear weapons, while 70 percent wants the United States to deploy tactical nuclear weapons on Korean soil.
This is a return to the Cold War era when deployment of tactical weapons in Europe was understood to be the main guarantor of American support. Today’s worry is whether the US is prepared to sacrifice Los Angeles to protect Tokyo or Seoul. Times have changed since, and the possibility of the US placing tactical nuclear weapons in Seoul is remote. Apart from the fact that the American public would vociferously oppose such a deployment, its effect on China would be such as to preclude even consideration of such a move.
Looking at the situation from Pyongyang’s point of view, these are impressive neighbouring capabilities and ambitions.
Though the North Korean leadership has distinguished itself through its eccentricities and its complete disregard for world opinion, the fact remains that it would be an extremely trusting country that would shy away from building its own arsenal in the face of the threats it receives continuously from across its borders.
Strictly speaking, North Korea has not shown any irresponsibility in its testing so far. The United States conducted 1,054 tests between 1945 and 1992, and more than 200 were atmospheric tests, causing severe radioactive fallout. The Soviets conducted some 221 such tests in Siberia. China’s atmospheric testing between 1964 and 1996 have probably killed thousands in the remote Xinjiang region.
On the other hands, all six North Korean tests have been underground and so well contained that it is difficult for ‘sniffer’ aircraft to detect the extent and nature of the nuclear test. This is probably not evidence of North Korean consideration for its ill-fated population, but its ability to showcase capabilities it has got from – among others – Pakistan.
The fact remains that in amassing a capability by fair means or foul, the North Koreans have not been any different from some acknowledged or unacknowledged nuclear weapon states.
Pakistan’s own record has been far worse, and the Abul Qadir Khan patronage circles are at the bottom of more than one covert nuclear program.
Now, it’s probably North Korea’s turn. For India, the danger lies in the fact that a reverse flow of missile technology is likely to flow back into Pakistan, this time in return for money or other assistance for the highly sanctioned regime. Recently, the North Korean embassy in Islamabad was found to be involved in extensive smuggling activities. Given the ‘special relationship’ that has long existed between the two, far worse can be expected.
Meanwhile, the difficulties of dealing with the North Korean menace has become obvious given the nature of the solutions being offered. The recent re-designation of North Korea as a “sponsor of terrorism” by the US State Department has come under scathing criticism from former officials who point out that the additional sanctions could have been imposed without this designation.
Moreover, as many had predicted, the designation obviously had no effect on North Korean behaviour. The possibility of an outright US attack on the country’s nuclear and missile sites is probably one that its president would like, given his persona. However, it is hardly one that will even be considered by already apprehensive neighbours.
Conversely, it is the reactions of these neighbours that is causing worry all around. A nuclear-armed North Korea, with even reduced capabilities, is not one that will be acceptable to either Seoul, Tokyo, or to cast the net further, even Australia.
This is not about a missile test alone. This is about the testing of US Treaty system in the Asia Pacific. Old “cornerstones” of security are threatening to fall apart, and the fault is not entirely that of Pyongyang.