N Korea's missile launch worrying

N Korea's missile launch worrying

It is difficult to verify Pyongyang's claims; it has made remarkable advance in perfecting missile technology.

Since Kim Jong-un took power in December 2011, North Korea has made rapid strides in the development of the banned intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). In his New Year address to the nation, Kim claimed the country was close to a test-launch and the work is in the “final stages”.

North Korea has been testing rocket engines and heat-shields for an ICBM while developing the technology to guide a missile after re-entry into the atmosph­ere following a lift-off. However, international weapons experts are of the opinion that though Pyongyang’s claims to be close to a test-launch seems plausible, it is likely to take some more years to perfect the weapon.

However, given Pyongyang’s determination and claims of success in the two nuclear tests it conducted in 2016, it is possible for it to achieve its objective to miniaturise a nuclear warhead to mount on a missile.

There lies the real danger. The ICBMs have a minimum range of about 5,500 km, but some are designed to travel 10,000 km or further. Since continental US is around 9,000 km from the North, a nuclear enabled ICBM could be a potential threat to the mainland US. 

Though it is difficult to independently verify Pyongyang’s claims, it is true that the country has made remarkable advance in perfecting the missile technology. Even the nuclear test that it conducted in April 2016 with a large liquid-fuel engine that propelled an ICBM was itself a major development. That time Pyongyang successfully re-engineered the Soviet R-27 missile engine design that it had in its possession, which helped to double its propulsion.

Pyongyang claims that it is capable of mounting a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile and also able to miniaturise a nuclear device. Analysts are divided on whether North Korea has fully realised its nuclear ambitions since it is yet to successfully test-fire an ICBM. Nevertheless, Pyongyang’s claims remain a worrying factor, especially for the countries in North’s neighbourhood.

The isolated nation has been under the UN Security Council sanctions since 2006 when it conducted its first nuclear test and subsequently launched numerous long-range rockets. These sanctions have been further tightened subsequent to further nuclear tests.

Pyongyang has been defying arms trade, which it needs to fund its nuclear and missile upgrades. Such acti­vities are banned by the UN san­ctions but ignored by the North.

It is suspected that the country is in possession of enough uranium that can enable it to make six bombs a year while continuing to re-engineer the Soviet-era design and technology to further its nuclear and missile programmes.

The money earned from illegal arms trade and supplemented by virtually free labour and taxes levied on wealthy traders in the country’s unofficial market economy are used for its nuclear and missile programmes.      

In his New Year address, Kim boasted that the country’s nuclear deterrent capability is the biggest insurance for the nation’s security. He addressed the people that North Korea is now a “military power of the East that cannot be touched by even the strongest enemy”. Kim’s ultimate ambition is to develop a weapons system that is capable of hitting the US mainland with a nuclear warhead.

The string of nuclear and missile tests in the past two years have direct impact on the security scenario in the region, who­se significance is serious. Given its past behaviour, the neighbouring countries such as Japan and South Korea are worried.

Managing regional security and checking the prospect of escalation have preoccupied Japan, South Korea and even China. They see threat from Pyongyang as real and therefore a worry.

Six Party Talks

The Beijing-initiated Six Party Talks that attempted to address North Korea’s nuclear and missile development issues is virtually dead after the North walked out from the forum in 2008. The nation remains a pariah state and is unwilling to talk to any other country.

Even China, its only benefactor, is displeased at the North’s behaviour but has its own vulnerability and therefore likely to keep it afloat. Pyongyang knows this and takes advantage in pursuing its nuclear and missile development agenda.

This has left the neighbouring countries with little choice other than to develop their own deterrent capabilities for their security. Three related issues here are worth mentioning. First, US president-elect Donald Trump has called upon the allies in East Asia to pay more for American military support and even suggested that the allies might even consider having their own nuclear weapons.

Second, in order to protect itself from the possible missile attacks by North Korea, Japan is investing in the latest US-developed ballistic missile interceptors for its ship-based Aegis missile defence system.

And the third, the US and South Korea have decided to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) in South Korea. Japan too is considering deploying the THAAD battery. The security situation in the region is getting more complicated.

(The writer is ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan)