North Korea’s ICBM Tests: The Dangers Of Isolation

Earlier this week, North Korea fired a ballistic missile, once again, which reportedly is the “most powerful ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile), which meets the goal of the completion of the rocket weaponry system development set by the DPRK,” according to Yonhap news. The missile, fired from a city called Pyongsong at 3:17 am local time on Wednesday, reached an estimated altitude of 4,000 km. U.S. Secretary of Defense declared this recent missile the strongest one yet, and is one that can essentially “threaten everywhere in the world.” North Korea has tested three ICBMs this year, and claims that the recent missile tests proved its ability to hit the US mainland.

North Korea’s relationship with its nuclear program dates back to 1994, when the state officially announced its withdrawal from the NPT (non-proliferation treaty). Although the signing of the Agreed Framework with the U.S. under Jimmy Carter led to a freeze in North Korea’s illicit plutonium weapons program in exchange for aid, the agreement only lasted until 2002 before breaking apart. Since then international efforts, such as the Six-Party Talks in the mid-2000s, or even domestic attempts at peaceful reunification, such as the Sunshine policy implemented under the Kim Daejung and Roh Moohyun administration, have failed to push the North to abandon its nuclear program.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons are of paramount value to the regime’s security and survival. Not only does it guarantee the security of the state against foreign (namely US) invasion or in the case of war with South Korea, but, furthermore, it also serves as a prop that allows North Korea to be heard better and taken more seriously in the international arena. The state’s nuclear program and missile tests affect international actors, namely Japan, China, and the US, but especially South Korea. When the Korean peninsula was divided in 1945 after the end of World War II, a three-year war soon broke out on the peninsula, which finally ended in 1953 with an armistice (not a peace treaty). This means that North Korea is still technically at war with the South. The inclusion of nuclear missiles to the equation makes the temporary ‘peace’ at the border an extremely fragile one.

As of the status quo, North Korea has been refusing to come to the table for any talks or negotiations. Diplomatic relationships between not only the US, but also South Korea, have been rejected by the DPRK and have been put on hold. Currently, the telephone line operating in the DMZ (demilitarized zone) for emergency and diplomatic communication between the North and South has been cut off, making it one of the most dangerous places to be in. Without any means of contact, any miscommunication or mistake in actions could result in the outbreak of war. However, I believe the recent missile test and North Korea’s confidence in its ICBM technology will bring the state to the discussion table for new negotiations to take place. Although international actors should condemn the launching of missile tests, states should still encourage North Korea to participate in dialogue and communication to prevent an escalation of tension. Trump’s decision last week of re-designating North Korea as a “state sponsor of terrorism” is likely to only isolate North Korea from participating in such necessary and crucial discussions.

In Hee Kang