N Korea's missile muscle

Provocative acts

Starting late February, North Korea has launched a new series of military provocations by firing a series of short-range missiles into the sea off its eastern coast, thereby displaying its missile arsenal. In its latest sign of aggression, North Korea test-fired on March 16, 25 rockets off the North’s east coast that flew about 70 km over the Sea of Japan (East Sea). An investigation on their trajectory showed the rockets were believed to be unguided.

These are the old Soviet-developed Frog rockets that North Korea has possessed since the 1960s. According to the South Korean defence ministry, North Korea fired two short-range missiles off its eastern coast in the first week of March 2014, the second such launch in less than a week. The weapons launched were scud missiles that flew more than 500 km and landed in the sea. These launches came just days after the start of annual joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States.
 The second launch was the first time North Korea had fired scud missiles, which have a range that covers the whole of the Korean Peninsula, since 2009. This year, the North Korean missile firings may not herald a repeat of last year's sabre rattling from Pyongyang, which included threats of preemptive nuclear strikes against the United States and South Korea and the declaration that the armistice that stopped the Korean War in 1953 is null and void.

Such short-range rocket tests are usually considered routine, as opposed to the long-range rocket or nuclear tests, which are condemned internationally and are seen as provocations. These series of launches have provoked criticism from Seoul and Washington. The activity coincides with annual South Korean-US military exercises that started in February and will run until mid-April.

Pyongyang routinely condemns such war games as rehearsals for an invasion, while Seoul and Washington say they are purely defensive. Though Seoul has been urging Pyongyang to stop provocative activities that will heighten military tension across the border, North Korea’s reactions this year is seen to be soft compared to earlier years because it wants better ties with the outside world to revive its struggling economy. When Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear test in February 2013, it evoked international condemnation. North Korea in return launched a tirade of war rhetoric against Seoul and Washington. This year, the reactions seem to have been subdued.

Yet, while the North has defended its missile and rocket tests as justifiable self-defence drills, South Korea has called the launches a ‘reckless provocation’ and Washington has urged Pyongyang to halt the tests immediately, saying they risked inflaming regional tensions. While Pyongyang’s reactions could appear soft, the joint military drills do not prevent Pyongyang to threaten to demonstrate its nuclear deterrence. Does it mean that the regime is preparing to carry out a fourth atomic test?

Irrational exerciseSince Pyongyang’s behaviour is often irrational, that possibility could not be completely ruled out. China is North Korea’s main ally. Both North Korea and China want the resumption of six-party talks on the former’s nuclear weapons programme. But both the US and South  Korea insist that Pyongyang first demonstrate some tangible commitment to abandoning nuclear weapons.

If there is no accommodation from either side, a fourth nuclear test and/or firing of a long-range rocket by Pyongyang could not be ruled out. If this really happens, the cross-border ties currently on the upswing, an event that raised hopes for greater cooperation between the two Koreas, would prove to be an exercise in futility.

North Korea tested a multistage rocket with possible intercontinental potential in December 2012, and carried out a third nuclear test in February 2013. Such actions were stung then by fierce international criticism and sanctions. Pyongyang reacted angrily when 2013's joint military exercises between South Korea and the US involved stealth bombers simulating bombing attacks.

Though the missile launches this time were different, these were surely an attempt by North Korea to remind the world and its own people that it has muscle too.Security analysts say North Korea is still years away from having the technology to deliver a nuclear warhead on a missile, but it does have plenty of conventional military firepower, including medium-range ballistic missiles that can carry high explosives for hundreds of miles.

Despite Pyongyang saber rattling, and given the reclusive nature of the state, it is difficult to make an inventory of the missiles and other capabilities that are in possession of North Korea. It has long pursued a policy of secrecy, concealment and deception to keep South Korea and the US in the dark.

But from the available information it can be said that North Korea currently supports a robust ballistic missile programme, which might include 600 to 1,000 missiles of all types. These missiles can be employed throughout the Korean peninsula and East Asia. Pyongyang has also acquired the capability to threaten the US states of Alaska and Hawaii, and possibly the west coast of the continental US. Pyongyang also continues to develop a viable nuclear warhead and a reliable satellite launch capability.

All these programmes are solely aimed at preserving the Kim family and its power, elimination of all internal threats (the execution of his own uncle in December 2013 is an example) and deterring any threat at any time from the US, South Korea and their allies, with a long term objective to achieve reunification on its own terms. But given the complicated perceptional and security issues and the kind of indoctrination that the people of North Korea have gone through, such aspiration would remain as only will-o’-the-wisp. While Pyongyang is unlikely to compromise on its political principles, China’s continued support for its own reasons will ensure that reunification remains a pipe dream.

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