North Korean ballistic missile test: a critical analysis

By Beenish Altaf

North Korea launched a ballistic missile toward the sea off its eastern coast. The shot believed to be a modified version of the North’s intermediate-range ballistic missile, Musudan took off from Banghyon, a town near North Korea’s northwestern border with China that flew 310 miles before falling in the sea. Sarcastically narrating, was it really an attempt just to jolt the new American President? North Korea has since warned that it could test-launch an ICBM “anytime and anywhere,” in its first challenge to the new American president. Nevertheless, the United States Strategic Command issued a statement identifying the missile as a medium- or intermediate-range system that “did not pose a threat to North America.”

The flying-up apprehensions around the globe is that why North Korea speeded up its nuclear detonations? The answer to the question can be wrapped up in the findings primed by John Hemmings who is a Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, that “North Korea in order to gain its importance wants; regime survival, acceptance as a nuclear power by the US, a peace treaty between the US and North Korea, trade and economic growth on their terms, and Korean unification under Pyongyang’s benign rule.”

Well, North Korea is continually building up its nuclear and missile program that is causing apprehensions worldwide. Its latest missile test triggered the fear of nuclear terror among the US and other relevant states. It triggered a flurry of phone calls among the worried leaders of the US, South Korea and Japan. It is actually plan of the US to install anti-missile defence system in the South that further elevated and evoked concerns in the North.

UN Sanctions

The test has ignited global resentment with the UN Security Council agreeing to begin drawing up new sanctions against the North and several Western capitals threatening the country of its dire consequences. Nonetheless, the United States, Japan and South Korea have requested urgent diplomatic talks Monday at the United Nations, which prohibits North Korea from engaging in any ballistic missile activities. But it’s unlikely that the meeting will lead to any serious punishment for North Korea, which is already under a slew of U.N. and other international sanctions. At the same time, nuclear missile program of DPRK has become reality as despite all the sanctions and the warnings they have been developing their nuclear program. Ironically, nothing has work so far, either the UN sanctions or unilateral steps taken by the US, Japan or South Korea. Even the entire focus of the US has been on tightening sanctions against the impoverished country, which is already under several sets of UN sanctions.

Challenge to Non-proliferation regime

Sarcastically, the test also raised attention-grabbing queries on the proliferation front. Alarmingly, North Korean nuclear advancements give quite clear message to the international non-proliferation regime and perhaps undermine the disarmament efforts globally. It is taken as a step further towards miniaturization of its nuclear warheads. Whatsoever, it not only defies the nuclear abolitionists’ demands, but also increases the probability of nuclear weapons horizontal proliferation in the region. Consequently, threatens to undermine an already fragile security situation in the region too. Isolating North Korea here has proved to be counter-productive. However, the ideal solution would be to resolve the issues with a balanced approach having sanctions and diplomatic engagements simultaneously.

Indian covert involvement

There is a prevailing view from the US analysts believing that India has been covertly helping North Korea develop its nuclear and missile programs despite UN sanctions since 2006. Since 2006, the UN has issued five major sanctions against North Korea. According to international reports and the US experts, India is reportedly involved in training dozens of North Koreans who later took key positions in its sensitive missile programs. More so over, North Koreans have been receiving training related to missile and space programs in India for the past two decades — an outcome of which is seen in the shape of recent ballistic missile test.

Pakistan’s outlook

The international community along with the other peace loving countries is exasperated on North Korea’s growing nuclear aspirations. Likewise Pakistan has condemned it too expressing it as against the objective of a nuclear weapons free Korean peninsula. More precisely, all that Pakistan wants is peace in Korean Peninsula. It is desired that all the countries in the region including North and South Korea, Japan, China and the US, manage the situation diplomatically with utmost responsibility.

Regional Concerns and Security Implications

Since, the international community is concerned about the new security implications for the country in particular and the region in general, pursued by the current test. China one of the big partisan of North Korea too strongly gave verdict against the launch and called it would worsen the situation in Korean Peninsula. Another point to keep in focus is that “Chinese companies are more implicated in North Korea today than they were before, so the Chinese could stand lose on that front if the US tightens sanctions.” But the Chinese will need to be patient, and hope that the timing works out so that the diplomatic channel will engage before they are forced to backpedal because of distress in North Korea.

While South Korea and Japan might have legitimate concerns over nuclear movements in the neighborhood, there is also urgent need to resolve the problem through constructive engagement with the North aimed at addressing its concerns as well. South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said the test, the first by the North this year, demonstrated the “maniacal obsession” of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, with developing a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile.

Critical Evaluation

It has been evaluated in the past that the North Korean threat is likely to expand into full-blown nuclear-weapons capability early in the term of the next president, so it could be seen on the screens now. For that matter, Pentagon had already decided upon THAAD missile-defence system, in partnership with South Korea and Japan.

Pragmatically, the test does not means that North Korea is going to drop any nuclear bomb on the US; instead the international community is more concerned about the significant escalating enhancement of North Korean nuclear capabilities. Since, the each new test results with a more sophisticated expertise and technology than its previous attempts.

There were plenty of opportunities in the past when North Korean leadership expressed its willingness to talk to the world on its nuclear program subject to lifting of sanctions and provision of necessary economic assistance. The collaborative approach would have been effective but regrettably the United States preferred to hurl threats on North Korea aggravating the situation further.

But now North Korea aspires to become the giant of the region by enhancing its nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles. On the other hand, analyst are of the view that to carry out nuclear attack, North Korea would need to miniaturize its warheads so that they can be fitted on a missile for delivery and there are reasonable doubts about claims of the Pyongyang regarding its ability to miniaturize nuclear weapons.

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Beenish Altaf

Beenish Altaf is working as a Research Associate at the Strategic Vision Institute, an Islamabad based think tank. Her areas of research are nuclear non-proliferation and strategic issues of South Asia. She has a masters degree in Defence and Diplomatic Studies from Fatima Jinnah Women University.

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