News of another ominous development in the tenuous diplomatic situation on the Korean Peninsula arrived Wednesday. According to National Public Radio, North Korea test-launched a new ballistic missile from the port city of Wonsan, towards the south. The missile was reported to have landed within the Sea of Japan, in the Japanese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The Associated Press reports that this missile launch comes on the heels of an announcement of planned talks with the United States after a seven month hiatus. More troublingly, CNN reported that this new missile was launched from an underwater platform, indicating that the missile, which is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, is intended to be launched from submarines. CNN correspondent Paula Hancock stated in an interview that North Korea’s actions fit in with a pattern of carrying out weapons tests just prior to negotiations. Hancock also stated that the North felt especially comfortable carrying out these tests, as “they know that [US] President Donald Trump approves of these tests, as he has stated that all countries carry out such tests,” and that “Trump is only concerned about tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles that could hit the United States.” South Korea’s National Security Council, however, found the news of the test to be “greatly concerning.” Japan, whose EEZ was struck by the missile, showed even more concern. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that the missile launch violated UN Security Council resolutions, and that his government would work with the US and international community to safeguard the Japanese people, according to NHK World. Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest, believes that North Korea did this to “make its negotiating position quite clear before talks begin,” according to CNBC. Kazianis also stated that “Pyongyang seems set to push Washington to back off from past demands of full denuclearization for what are only promises of sanctions relief.” For their part, North Korean state media condemned the “unchangingly aggressive” joint military exercises conducted yearly by South Korean and American military forces, seeming to imply a degree of equivalency in their actions.
The prospect of a North Korea armed with submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) is deeply alarming. With these missiles, the rogue nation would be able to attack civilian and military targets for hundreds of miles around with much less advance warning than with conventional land-based missiles. The United States and its allies must stand firm in condemning this latest saber-rattling, and redouble their diplomatic efforts to effect a de-nuclearization of North Korea. Since the 1953 ceasefire at the end of the Korean War, in which the Soviet-allied North Korea fought against the American-backed South Korea, the North has been isolated and heavily militarized. According to a report by the Council on Foreign Relations, the North Korean regime spends more than a quarter of its GDP on its military, and has used this to finance the development of nuclear weapons, despite being an extremely poor nation otherwise. This nuclear program first bore fruit in 2006, with an underground weapons test. Since then, five more tests have been recorded, most recently in September 2016. These tests have been met with widespread condemnation from the rest of the world, with sanctions being levied against the regime to pressure the leadership to abandon its nuclear program. This is easier said than done, as North Korea sees its nuclear weapons program as the key to its survival. Indeed, the Associated Press article states that North Korea’s stance on nuclear weapons is influenced by the events of the Libyan Revolution of 2011, in which longtime leader Muammar Gadaffi was overthrown and killed by his own people after abandoning Libya’s nuclear weapons program in 2004. For the regime to give up its nuclear capabilities would be to seem weak on the international and domestic stage, paving the way for a revolution that would topple the current leadership.
North Korea must not be allowed to intimidate the world with these weapons of mass destruction with impunity. Only through concentrated diplomatic efforts can the condemnation of the world towards these tests be backed by concrete action. Such diplomatic efforts should include the sanctioning of the Pyongyang leadership, as well as those directly involved with designing the new SLBM. Additionally, the US and its allies must work to develop missile interception technology, as well as improved early warning systems, so as to render the threat of North Korea’s weapons to be null and void, whether they are launched from the ground, or from under the sea. Only through the nullification of the regime’s capacity to terrorize the world can the situation within and outside the Korean Peninsula be improved.