On Point: North Korea�'s Missile Test Raises Tensions in East Asia

by Austin Bay
December 12, 2012

North Korea’s successful test of its long-range multi-stage Unha-3 ballistic missile demonstrated that the US West Coast may soon be within range of Pyongyang’s warheads.

However, North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile theatrics are no longer getting the same reaction from its more immediate target audiences: South Korea and Japan. Japan had promised to intercept Pyongyang’s test missile should it intrude on Japanese territory. It didn’t, so Japan’s impressive missile defense system did not see action. Japan, however, has committed itself to intercepting any future North Korean missile or missile fragments which fall on its territory.

Pyongyang utterly disregarded the threat of international sanctions. That’s a bit ironic, since threat is Pyongyang’s only game. The threat of igniting a scorched-earth war that reduces Seoul and Tokyo to cinders (and thus sends the  entire global economy into a depression) is starving North Korea’s only diplomatic leverage.

South Korea has dealt the North overwhelming economic, social and  cultural defeats. Seoul’s skyline and ubiquitous products attest to South Korea’s economic success.

North Korea’s propagandists have nothing to peddle, so they have turned missile and nuclear tests into highly ritualized theatrical productions.  The opening scenes involve missile rollout, accompanied by claims that the missile will place a peaceful communications satellite in orbit. This phase is the rough equivalent of a melodrama’s villain opening his cloak and displaying  his dagger, which he claims, of course, is only used to trim his mustache.

Then the dagger-missile is raised. A long launch window maximizes otherwise dismal North  Korea’s moment in the international media spotlight. This test launch more or less followed the script.

For almost two decades, North Korea’s Kim dynasty ran a reasonably  successful extortion racket based on the theory that South Korean, Japanese and  American leaders would appease the hereditary dictatorship rather than accept  the material, moral and global economic risks a war in East Asia entails. The  Kim mob’s crude bargain has been, “Give us food and fuel, and we won’t kill a  bunch of people.”

Over the last three to four years, however, South Korea and Japan have sent strong signals that appeasement is over. Mainstream Japanese politicians  openly discuss acquiring offensive weapons as a means of combating  North Korea’s missile threat.

After North Korea sank the South Korean warship Cheonan in March  2010, the outraged South Korean government demanded reparations. Later that  year, then-South Korean President Lee Myung-bak proposed establishing a Korean  reunification fund that over the next few decades would have the $1 to $2  trillion it will take to rebuild North Korea once it collapses and the South  absorbs it.

In 1988, Japan was already thinking about defensive systems designed  to counter North Korean or, potentially, Chinese missiles. That year, Japan  decided to build the Kongo-class destroyer and arm it with U.S. Aegis radars and  Standard antiballistic missiles (ABMs). Japan began constructing an early  warning radar system and later acquired land-based Patriot PAC-3 ABMs.

Today, Japan sports a sophisticated “thin shield” missile defense system capable of  intercepting incoming missiles at both high (upper-tier, with the Standard-3)  and low (Patriot PAC-3) altitudes.

Japan built the system without fanfare.

That has changed. Japan now publicly touts the defensive system and promises to use it. This test launch marks the third in a row where the Japanese government ordered its defense forces to use ABMs to  intercept the North Korean missile or any missile debris that is heading for  Japanese territory.

Japan’s calculated display of will reflects strategic worries much  more threatening than North Korea. Japan has watched China’s growing military  strength, with understandable trepidation. This year, the two Asian economic  powers have clashed over maritime borders and islets. Japan knows China is also  observing, quite closely, its reaction to North Korean intimidation. 

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