by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: KRT

UNCERTAIN TIMES are ahead following an incident this morning in which North Korea fired a missile which passed over Japan, eventually landing 730 miles off the coast of Cape Erimo of Hokkaido. This comes after a period of time in which it became widely perceived that North Korea had backed down from threats to fire missiles at the American non-incorporated territory of Guam, which hosts a number of American military bases. More attentive commentators, however, pointed out that analyzing what North Korea had actually said did not backed down from its threat and that comments by leader Kim Jong-Un had been overstated in translation by international media and misunderstood by Donald Trump, and today’s launch has proven them right. Responses from South Korea have followed with bombings on the border between North Korea and live fire drills. The missile launch led to havoc in the stock market this morning.

But while North Korea has adopted a dangerous form of brinksmanship with present actions, we also do well to remember that North Korea’s leaders realize that military invasion would spell the doom of the current ruling regime, it has to be kept firmly in mind that North Korea’s reactions are probably not irrational here. North Korea probably continues to view it as the rationally best course of action to keep the world on edge, in order to maximize the amount of leverage that the pariah state has on the international community. North Korea, then, likely is attempting to send a warning to America and Japan that North Korea has not backed down from previous threats, perhaps realizing that its previous comments had been misinterpreted as North Korea having backed down from its previous threats. But North Korea probably also intends to send a warning to its only ally, China, which hosted war games in seas near the Korean peninsula in what seems to be threats reminding North Korea that it could also potentially incur China’s military ire, that it will not comply with attempts to force it stand down. Yet, of course, as with all forms of brinksmanship, this simply escalates the possibility that conflict will break down.

Some form of response will be necessary from both the US and China. China had previously urged calm on the Korean peninsula and vaguely endorsed statements by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in state-run media calling for measures responses to North Korea. It was, after all, China’s inability to reign in North Korea which put an end to the brief thaw between the Trump administration and the Chinese government in past months and relations have continued to deteriorate, with rumors that Trump is pushing for trade sanctions on China.

However, in consideration of the unpredictability of the Trump presidency, in which Trump routinely circumvents his staff in order to make unilateral decisions on his own, both US state actors and Chinese state actors likely fear Trump taking matter in his own hands. This proves ironic, seeing as after the political turmoil following Donald Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacists responsible for the death of an anti-racist demonstrator in Charlottesville, Virginia, reports indicate that the military leaders in the Trump administration have become demoralized, but stay on in order to formulate a response to the issue of North Korea and indications of secretary of state Rex Tillerson attempting to distance himself from foreign policy comments by Trump in order to maintain US foreign policy.

What happens next is largely unknown. North Korean actions may drive a further wedge between the US and China, with the US taking further aggressive measures against China with the view that China is guilty for being unable to control its client state. China will then be forced into a position in which it has to take some form of action against North Korea to placate the US and the international community writ large. Or, on the flipside, it could actually be that further demonstrations that China is unable to control the Kim regime in North Korea allowing China to try and reduce tensions with the US through calling for greater cooperation with the US to counteract the mutual threat of North Korea.

South Korean and Japanese responses will also be highly significant going forward. Obviously, it is South Korea which shares a border with North Korea and faces the threat of direct military invasion from North Korea, and South Korea’s initial response was also to engage in military warnings against North Korea. However, as the missile fired this morning passed over Japanese territory, in line with past threats against Japan by North Korea, this could also provide leverage for Shinzo Abe to escalate Japanese actions against North Korea. In particular, as a right-wing nationalist, it has been a longstanding ideological aim of Abe to rearm the Japanese military, which is technically a “Self-Defense Force” forbidden from fighting wars despite being one of the most technologically advanced militaries in the war.

Following scandals within the Japanese Self-Defense Force regarding deployment of the Japanese Self-Defense Force in South Sudan in what was popularly seen in Japan as a trial case for future military interventions, Abe was forced to remove political allies of a similarly militarist bent from his administration in a cabinet reshuffle. But hawkish actions by Abe using the justification provided by the North Korean missile launch could prove another contributing factor to conflict in the Asia Pacific region. For example, we do well to remember that despite claims by Abe that North Korean actions are “unprecedented”, North Korea previously fired a missile over Japan in 1998 and so the missile launch this morning does not actually mean that North Korea has new capacities which it did not previously have. While North Korea has certainly rapidly increased its missile capacities in recent years, some experts remain skeptical of its missile capabilities, including its ability to hit Guam. North Korea’s unpredictable actions are certainly a danger to neighboring countries, but one also must be wary of when exaggerated claims about its military capacities are used as a justification in preparation for possible war against it. Notably, Japan did not take action to try and shoot down the missile when it was fired today. 

What comes next remains to be seen. There are quite simply too many unpredictable factors up in the air and there may be little precedent for such tensions in the Asia Pacific.

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