North Korean Missile Tests And East Asian Stability

On 11 and 12 September North Korea successfully tested long-range cruise missiles. The missiles were launched ahead of a trilateral meeting between United States, Japanese, and South Korean officials to discuss the DPRK’s stalled denuclearization. They flew 1,500km before plummeting into the ocean. On the 15th,, the DPRK fired-off two ballistic missiles as Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and South Korean President Moon Jae-In met in Seoul to initiate talks on North Korea’s provocations. The U.S .has declared itself open to dialogue with the DPRK but still hesitates to relax sanctions in exchange for North Korean cooperation, according to The Guardian. U.S. military personnel and Japan’s chief cabinet secretary have all expressed “significant concern” about the dire implications of Pyongyang’s missile brinkmanship. Analyst Ankit Panda told the BBC that such cruise missiles could eventually carry miniaturized nuclear warheads and bypass South Korean defenses.

International reactions to the missile tests, particularly in East Asia, have been cautious and apprehensive. Yet the Biden administration’s reluctance to ease sanctions on North Korea precludes a permanent resolution to the crisis. Amnesty International’s 2020 report revealed that sanctions the UN imposed in 2017 have severely impaired North Korea’s already fragile public health system. It was rendered incapable of handling emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic. In a country where almost 10 million people are food insecure and deprived of basic amenities, economic sanctions continue to harm the most vulnerable citizens in North Korean society. The U.S. and UN could at least withdraw some sanctions as a gesture of goodwill to bring Kim Jong-Un’s regime to the negotiating table. This course of action may mollify Pyongyang’s siege mentality, diffuse mounting tensions, avert a potentially catastrophic conflict, and promote reconciliation in the region.

North Korea’s latest missile tests have taken place in the broader context of a years-long and East Asia-wide arms race which has steadily escalated since the PRC’s incursions into the South China Sea nearly a decade ago. China’s exponential rise in economic and military prowess poses a threat to countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Singapore. They have heavily invested in American, French, or Russian-made military hardware to bolster their armies, according to CNBC. There is a real risk that, in light of the current missile crisis, Asian governments will favour weapon stockpiling over working towards conditions conducive to peacemaking.

The proliferation of destructive weaponry, combined with the increasingly bellicose behaviour of North Korea and its neighbours, augurs ill for the maintenance of peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula, and whole of East Asia. Reuters reported earlier this month that South Korea, in response to the DPRK’s refusal to scale down its arsenals, developed an advanced submarine-launched ballistic missile system. Analysts dread this technology may prefigure the creation of South Korea’s own nuclear deterrent program. In August, the Taiwanese Defence Ministry demanded a considerable increase in military spending to purchase more anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles to repel a possible Chinese invasion, according to Forbes. Wanton missile launches from the DPRK, China’s staunchest ally, may convince lawmakers in Taipei to indulge their ministry’s desire for an expanded military budget. Sanae Takaichi, candidate in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s leadership contest in Japan, has already signaled a willingness to amend her nation’s pacifist constitution. She would support pre-emptive strike measures against North Korea should she be elected later this month, as noted in The Japan Times.

The onus is on the international community to prevent North Korea’s missile tests from precipitating any further escalation. Talking directly with Pyongyang would be a first step in finding a peaceful solution.