North Korea’s provocative action of launching four missiles into the Sea of Japan a few hundred kilometres from the Japanese coastline has triggered fears of renewed tension between nuclear-armed powers. The launch seems timed to test the strategic fortitude and tactical capabilities of new relationships in the broader power balance that reins in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. The first test would be of the strength of bilateral U.S.-Japan ties on the watch of U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un had already given these two leaders a wake-up call when his regime fired a medium-range missile last month. Mr. Trump has assured both Mr. Abe and South Korea’s acting President, Hwang Kyo-Ahn, of his ironclad commitment to stand by them through this crisis. Yet it is likely that Mr. Kim was, in fact, trying to get a measure of Mr. Trump, who had tweeted shortly before assuming office in January, “it won’t happen!”, on the North being close to testing an ICBM. Experts seem to concur that the missiles launched now did not appear to be of intercontinental range. Yet, the prospect looms of the North miniaturising nuclear warheads to the point where even shorter-range weapons could, if they were nuclear-tipped, pose unprecedented risk to South Korea, Japan and the U.S. military assets in the vicinity.
The continuous belligerence of North Korea is only one side of the story. The other is that the international community, led by the U.S. and nations within striking distance of the North’s aggression, has hardly managed the conflict consistently. The commendable effort of the Six Party Talks to invest diplomatic currency in bringing Pyongyang back to the negotiating table got derailed early on in President Barack Obama’s first term. The cycle of sanctions and international isolation fuelling further bravado by the Kim regime then dominated the denouement, as indeed it has since 1992. This time the conflict seems to be following a distinctly more unstable trajectory as Mr. Trump has authorised the deployment in South Korea of the first elements of the U.S.’s advanced anti-missile system, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), disregarding the possibility that it may be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the presumed retaliatory move of THAAD deployment glosses over the fact that in the past week the U.S. and South Korea had conducted military drills in the region, war games that Pyongyang views as overt hostility. On the other, Washington has clearly decided to ignore the justifiable fears of Beijing and Moscow that THAAD’s nuclear umbrella threatens their interests in the region too, not North Korea’s alone. Unless de-escalation becomes a priority for all parties involved, the Korean Peninsula region will remain a flashpoint.