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North Korea’s Nuclear and Missile Testing, Geo-Political Implications

North Korea’s Weapon Testing in 2017

Tensions have been growing on the Korean Peninsula in early 2017, as North Korea continues testing longer range ballistic missiles. This includes a number of projectiles which have fallen intentionally into the Sea of Japan or those, including the most recent missile launch on 29 April, which have exploded shortly after take-off. The issue of North Korea is not simply a matter of Seoul vs Pyongyang or Pyongyang vs Washington, but includes a number of competing regional and international actors all with different goals and preferred outcomes, engaged in a game of diplomatic chess.

North Korea

What are they doing?

North Korea has continued to test the patience of regional and international actors with its militaristic and nuclear ambitions. It seems clear that Pyongyang is testing the waters of what they can achieve under President Trump. North Korea has vowed to accelerate their weapons programme at a “maximum pace” and test a nuclear device “at any time” in response to perceived US aggression.

What do they want?

US hawkishness in the region gives Pyongyang some legitimisation for enhancing its weapons programme. Each time the US and South Korea or Japan conduct military exercises, Pyongyang feels vindicated in its own missile testing. In the past, Pyongyang has suspended its missile and nuclear testing in response to agreements over deliveries of food aid. It could be that Kim and the North Korean leadership are looking to use their weapons programme as a way to extract aid from the UN and the US. However, this is not clear.

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United States

What do they want?

At present, it is not quite clear what the US’ endgame or grand strategy is with respect to North Korea. President Trump has spelled out no formal doctrine in the arena of foreign affairs and is himself unprepared and inexperienced. It is clear that the US fears attacks on the western seaboard of the continental United States. While at present it does not seem to be a realistic eventuality for the North Korean weapons programme, it is never clear how far Pyongyang is from developing the technology to strike mainland USA. Intelligence does suggest that they would be able to strike Alaska, including the capital Anchorage. After Trump’s troubles getting any domestic legislation off the ground during the first 100 days, typically a time when the President possess the most political capital, he will surely be hoping to achieve a foreign policy triumph to improve his footing with Congress and the American people. Indeed, recent talks between Xi and Trump are said to have been productive, with both presidents reportedly seeing eye to eye on many issues involving North Korea.

What are they doing?

The Trump administration has claimed it wishes to deal with the standoff diplomatically but has not ruled out military options. The US military has moved the USS Carl Vinson, Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, towards the region. The Carl Vinson regularly engages in war games with South Korean forces. On 09 April 2017, President Trump stated he was sending the aircraft carrier as part of an ‘armada’ to the Korean peninsula. This was announced despite the fact it was participating in drills thousands of miles away in the Indian Ocean with the Australian Navy. A powerful US nuclear submarine, the USS Michigan, has also docked in South Korea.

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China

What do they want?

While China may be reluctant to admit this, they probably do not want to see an end to the current regime in Pyongyang, only for it to be moderated. Like the US, Beijing probably sees the issue of North Korea as an important bargaining chip. When dealing with world powers, China would much prefer to discuss relations on the Korean Peninsula than issues involving the South China Sea, Tibet, or Taiwan. Also, the current regime in Pyongyang ensures the country serves as a useful buffer zone against the United States. China fears that the collapse of the regime or a military conflict would lead to a huge refugee issue on the Sino-Korean border. For Beijing, sometimes the devil you know is better than the one you do not.

What are they doing?

At present, it is not clear what Beijing is doing in relation to North Korea. Public statements suggest that they are trying to bring Kim’s regime in to line, but this cannot be confirmed. On 02 May 2017, the Korea Times reported that China had advised its citizens in North Korea to return home, fearing an escalation between North Korea and the US. China has also begun restricting coal imports from North Korea, a key source of foreign currency for the impoverished North Korea. On 07 April, Chinese customs authorities reportedly ordered trading companies to return North Korean coal. In the past, China has used low levels of trade, particularly coal, to shore up the regime in Pyongyang.

South Korea and Japan

Both of these countries see the unpredictable regime in North Korea as the largest immediate threat to their security. South Korea’s ability to move against the perceived menace to the north has been limited somewhat by the political crisis which has engulfed Seoul over the past few months. Much more will be known of their positions when the new administration becomes a reality after the 09 May 2017 elections.

Pyongyang’s aggressions mean that both Japan and South Korea are being drawn closer in with the US and being provided more military support and protection. Japan’s, and to a lesser extent South Korea’s, greater fear is probably the rise of China rather than North Korea’s unpredictability. Japan fears China’s increased assertiveness in areas like the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.

What Next?

It is unclear what may happen next on the Korean Peninsula. Despite causing the Obama White House a headache, the atmosphere on the Peninsula is as bad as any time since the turn of the millennium. It should be noted, however, that tensions are usually at their peak during the early months of the year due to annual military drills between US and South Korea; drills that prepare for a hypothetical North Korean invasion. It is more likely that the current situation will continue to simmer at a high temperature rather than completely boil over. This will depend on the temperament of some actors in this current dispute, some of whom are highly volatile. The US unpredictability and less restrained approach with regards to North Korea may help bring about a long-term resolution, rather than another short-term period of détente. However, this same attitude may bring about an incredibly deadly conflict with widespread geopolitical implications.

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Kieran Lavy

Joining Solace Global in November 2015, Kieran initially trained as Response Manager before diversifying into the intelligence team, where he advises clients and employees on potential global threats. Through extensive study of current international affairs, Kieran and the team mitigate risks by providing accurate information and specific security advice. Before joining Solace Kieran completed a Master’s degree in Global Politics (with distinction), with a focus on security studies and Chinese international relations. Before undertaking this MSc, he lived and worked in China for three years. Kieran also speaks a basic level of Chinese and Spanish and holds a Bachelor of Arts in History.

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