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North Korean missiles again flying over Japan ‘only a matter of time,’ experts say

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (COURTESY OF KCNA)
January 04, 2020

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s declaration that his country is no longer bound by its self-imposed nuclear and missile moratorium drastically raises the chances of longer-range weapons overflying Japan once again, experts say.

“Missile tests through Japanese airspace are only a matter of time now,” said Van Jackson, a lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington and former Pentagon official.

The North last lobbed intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) over Japan on two occasions in 2017, prompting the government to send out alarms on cellphones and interrupt television programs to urge residents to take cover.

Indeed, the North pointed to a recurrence of such a scenario just last month, lambasting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as an “idiot” and warning that Japan could again see “a real ballistic missile” overflying the country “in the not distant future.”

Kim’s moratorium announcement came during a meeting of top ruling party officials, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported Wednesday, while also warning of a “new strategic weapon” that he vowed to unveil to the world “in the near future.”

“There is no ground for us to get unilaterally bound to the commitment any longer,” Kim said of his halt to nuclear and long-range missile tests.

Kim accused the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump of dragging its feet in nuclear negotiations, warning that the North will continue to build up its nuclear deterrent.

The North Korean leader made the comments during the fourth and final day of a meeting of the powerful Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party on Tuesday, where he declared that Pyongyang will never trade its security for promised economic benefits in the face of “gangster-like” U.S. sanctions and pressure.

“The U.S. is raising demands contrary to the fundamental interests of our state and is adopting (a) brigandish attitude,” KCNA quoted him as saying.

Kim “said that we will never allow the impudent U.S. to abuse the DPRK-U.S. dialogue for meeting its sordid aim but will shift to a shocking actual action to make it pay for the pains sustained by our people so far and for the development so far restrained,” the KCNA report quoted him as saying, using the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Kim added that “if the U.S. persists in its hostile policy toward the DPRK, there will never be the denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and the DPRK will steadily develop necessary and prerequisite strategic weapons for the security of the state until the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy.”

His remarks came amid a monthslong standoff between Washington and Pyongyang over disagreements involving disarmament steps and the easing of crushing U.S. and United Nations sanctions imposed on the North.

Still, despite the harsh rhetoric, Kim gave no clear indication of an imminent resumption of nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests, and even appeared to leave the door open for eventual negotiations, saying that “the scope and depth of bolstering our deterrent will be properly coordinated depending on the U.S. future attitude.”

Negotiations between the two sides have been at loggerheads since the breakup of their Hanoi summit last February, after which the North set an end-of-year deadline for the U.S. to offer fresh concessions on sanctions relief, issuing a veiled threat that it would take a “new path” if Washington failed to meet its demands.

It is unclear what a new path could mean, but analysts have speculated it could come in the form of a satellite launch or test of a solid-fueled ICBM, possibly over Japan.

“In a way, North Korea has been forced to show its hand after playing a risky game of poker in 2019,” said Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on North Korean issues.

“The end-of-year deadline it imposed could’ve led to a much more definitive North Korean posture, but instead the language Kim used was extremely careful and very conditioned on U.S. actions,” he said. “At a moment when North Korea could have closed the door much more firmly on engagement with the United States and more clearly spelled out a return to high tension, it effectively showed us that it still has a stake in the diplomatic process.”

The “new strategic weapon” mentioned by Kim — said by some analysts to be the country’s first solid-fueled ICBM — could be the anticipated “Christmas gift” that a senior North Korea official warned the U.S. of last month.

But Kim would not even need to launch such a weapon to make a powerful statement.

Merely deploying it in the field would do the trick, Joel Wit, a former State Department official who is now a senior fellow at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, said during a Wednesday telephone briefing.

“They can do it in a way that people can see, because the North Koreans know when our commercial satellites fly overhead, where they fly overhead, so they could rig it so it’s seen,” Wit said. This “would have a lot of impact” and “wouldn’t trigger a harsh response, particularly of sanctions.”

Indeed, Jackson, of Victoria University of Wellington, said that Kim’s remarks at the meeting allowed him the breathing room to test and show off more threatening weapons in his quest for sanctions relief.

“Kim has rhetorically freed himself to pursue any kind of research and weapons testing he wants,” Jackson said. “That will be provocative, and North Korea will accentuate or play up the threatening nature of the tests if it serves its purpose.”

This could include a return to its launches of weapons over the Japanese archipelago — a move that would appear to justify Tokyo’s deep skepticism of Pyongyang’s diplomatic push.

Firing a new nuclear-capable IRBM over Japan or resuming short-range Nodong and Scud launches would also afford Kim the best of both worlds: letting him showcase his firepower while at the same time not stepping over a red line alluded to by Trump.

The U.S. president and top officials in his administration have said that a return to nuclear tests and launches of ICBMs capable of striking the United States would prompt a strong response by Washington — and likely signal the end of diplomacy.

Pyongyang, however, could “resume Nodong and Scud launches, ‘to test operational readiness,’” Robert Carlin, a former U.S. intelligence official with decades of experience researching North Korea now at the Stimson Center, said during Wednesday’s telephone briefing. “That’s stopping short of an ICBM test but certainly raises the temperature.”

Trump might be willing to turn a blind eye to missiles unable to strike the U.S., like Nodongs, Scuds and IRBMs capable of hitting much of Japan, much as he did last year when the North unleashed a spate of short-range weapons tests.

Doing so would put yet another dent in Washington’s so-called ironclad alliance with Tokyo, experts say.

“Japan has been held captive by Trump’s ill-considered and extreme North Korea policy,” said Jackson. “When Trump threatens ‘fire and fury,’ Japan risks being bombarded by North Korean missiles. When Trump promises peace without any actual diplomacy, Japan risks being the victim of a deal the U.S. cuts with North Korea that leaves Japan vulnerable to (shorter-range) North Korean missiles.”

Tokyo, he said, has been in a “lose-lose situation” during the Trump presidency.

“I get the sense that policymakers in Tokyo just want to survive until 2021,” when a new U.S. president enters the White House or Trump returns for a second term after the November presidential election, he said.

Alternatively, Trump could view the North Korean push to raise tensions as a threat to his re-election bid. The U.S. president has repeatedly touted the lowering of tensions with Pyongyang as a key foreign policy victory, despite the lack of tangible progress from his diplomatic endeavors.

Still, despite the fears of a return to 2017, any negative reaction from Trump over rising tensions could also open the door to diplomatic benefits for Tokyo, said Oba.

“A return to heightened tensions with North Korea affords Japan the opportunity to tighten coordination with the United States and make a case for stability in the U.S.-Japan alliance at a time when issues like cost-sharing have been adding volatility to the alliance,” he said.

Trump, who fancies himself a dealmaker, has repeatedly called for U.S. allies to shoulder more of the costs of their partnerships with the United States. Japan — despite Trump’s golf-buddy relationship with Abe — is unlikely to be an exception to this when negotiations on a bilateral agreement for hosting American troops begins this year.


© 2020 the Japan Times