North Korea made news again when, on March 6, it launched four extended range Scud missiles from its Sohae Satellite Launching Station in the northwest corner of the country toward the East Sea/Sea of Japan. The missiles flew over 600 miles before splashing down dangerously close to Japan, at least one of which was within the Japanese Exclusive Economic Zone.
Much has been made of Pyongyang’s statement about its intent to target Japan. As graphically pointed out by an article in the Japan Times, those missiles could just as easily been aimed southeast to hit U.S. Fleet Activities at Sasebo or the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station at Iwakuni, both in western Japan. Obviously, all of South Korea is within that sweep.
Practice for a particular target but in a different direction to conceal true intent has long been a tactic used by the North. In this case, however, there is clearly more political and psychological value in making certain that the real target was well known.
Equally important, however, is to realize what was not mentioned: the parts of Japan that would be within range if such missiles were to be launched from the east coast of North Korea and closer to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ): 200 miles closer to the Japanese mainland.
Interested readers can draw an arc of 600 miles from any point in North Korea to see for themselves what a target-rich environment for the Scud-ERs exists in South Korea.
This is not to say Pyongyang intends to initiate hostilities anytime soon – it is only to show that if hostilities do break out, U.S. and its allies will indeed suffer damage as the North retaliates.
BROADER EFFECT OF MISSILE LAUNCHES
In targeting Japan, North Korea is attempting to drive a wedge between Tokyo and Washington, since it is Japan’s alliance with the U.S. that is the cause of Pyongyang’s threat to the island nation. However, that threat is likely to not have its intended effect, and in fact, it is likely to have the unanticipated consequence of strengthening the level of coordination between Japan and South Korea.
Seoul, for example, has long been interested in the intelligence that Japan produces concerning North Korean submarines, though, at present, information sharing goes through the U.S. as an intermediary and there is no direct exchange of intelligence. Now that Japan is directly threatened, however, Tokyo is more interested in getting any direct information it can from Seoul concerning North Korean missiles.
Cooperation between Japan and South Korea is likely to increase, despite the fact that the two countries have several ongoing disputes:
- Ongoing concern in South Korea about Japan’s history books whitewashing its ignoble Imperial past in Asia
- The unraveling of the hastily concluded comfort women deal in the closing days of 2015
- Dueling claims over the Liancourt Rocks – Dokdo to the Koreans, Takeshima to the Japanese
- Disagreement on what to call the body of water in which the islet group is located – the East Sea or the Sea of Japan.
These problems may fall by the wayside in light of recent developments, for there is nothing like new and credible threats from a common enemy to force a reconciliation between bickering partners.
In targeting Japan, North Korea is attempting to drive a wedge between Tokyo and Washington
One response from the U.S. has been the push for the quick installation in South Korea of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system, which brings its own set of problems into the equation. China sees THAAD as a threat to its own missile capabilities, and Beijing has instituted economic retribution against South Korea for allowing the system on its soil.
This has the potential for creating disharmony between Seoul and Washington, until now very close allies. That closeness may change as a result of the May 9 presidential elections in South Korea. Seoul is likely to veer politically to left – and THAAD itself could be shot down by the new South Korean government.
This convergence of issues carries the risk of upsetting stability in Northeast Asia for some time to come. Pyongyang has to be pleased with this, for things could hardly have turned out better for the regime.
There is a clear pattern in how North Korea has behaved in the past. Pyongyang uses a modus operandi of political engagement – call it the Totalitarian Tango – comprised of the steps outlined here:
1: North Korea wants something, most often food supplies or petroleum products.
2: North Korea uses inflammatory rhetoric or causes an incident to set the stage.
3: The West ignores North Korea, attributing its behavior to merely acting out.
4: North Korea increases tensions with more extreme rhetoric or violent acts.
5: The West finally pays attention and engages in dialog with North Korea.
6: North Korea agrees to stop its belligerence in exchange for what it wants.
7: Once that is received, North Korea soon fails to honor its part of the bargain.
8: When wants arise again, return to “step 2”.
One could view this as Pyongyang calling the tune with the U.S. and other regional actors paying the piper. It is a well-honed swindle that the North has used over and over again while the U.S. and its allies in the region react like Pavlov’s dogs.
The “Dance” is not conducive to long-term solutions, so if this cycle is to be broken, we need to come up with better responses. A number of recent articles have articulated various points as to what is needed, suggestions which come from all over the political spectrum. Most of them have valid perspectives, even though some seem naïve. All have serious detriments. To confound things even further, regional actors have their own national interests that do not always mesh easily with those of the others. Any major concerted effort is unlikely.
So, what to do? First, if we are honest with ourselves, we might come to realize that North Korea is holding the rest of us hostage with its threat of nuclear weapons and missiles. We, at least, are beginning to understand that there are not any good diplomatic or military options. We should look for ideas elsewhere.
This is a well-honed swindle that the North has used over and over again while the U.S. and its allies in the region react like Pavlov’s dogs.
WORDS VERSUS STICKS AND STONES
One instructive – and potentially useful – model comes to mind: police hostage negotiating teams. For application to the North Korean problem, I specifically exclude the typical climax in which the hostage situation ends in either (1) the hostage-taker giving up peacefully but then being captured and prosecuted, or (2) the hostage-taker being taken out. Neither of these two options would appeal to Pyongyang – and it is unlikely either would work anyway.
However, it is instructive to study how skillful negotiators are able to defuse extremely tense situations by employing calming – not inflammatory – dialect, respecting the hostage-taker’s perspective and agreeing with them on a number of lesser points in order to end the impasse. I see a parallel between such hostage situations and what we have today with regard to North Korea.
To start, the world could admit that North Korea is indeed a nuclear power. Critics claim that doing so would undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): that argument is brain-dead because it does not work for rogue nations like North Korea. The NPT did not stop India, Pakistan, or Israel from developing their own nuclear arsenals.
Others would contend that acknowledging Pyongyang as a member of the nuclear club would give legitimacy to an out-of-control regime. It is difficult to see how refusing to recognize reality is going to lead us out of the deadly quagmire that exists precisely because of our inability or refusal to deal with that reality.
Once Kim Jong Un’s ego has been stroked by the West, having recognized that he does indeed have nuclear weapons at his disposal, then everyone – including North Korea – might be better positioned to do something that lessens the tensions in the region. As tensions diminish, the spiral may reverse, leading to openings for making the best of what options remain after so many botched opportunities.
Featured image: KCNA
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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