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News analysis

North Korea poses growing threat with latest missile launch

The success of North Korea's latest missile launch on Wednesday makes its nuclear threat more realistic and sophisticated, given the combination of different missile types in its arsenal, experts said.

But they doubt it will catalyse the resumption of six-party talks to end the North's nuclear programme, given the geostrategic differences of the nations involved.

In 2009, Pyongyang formally withdrew from the talks involving South Korea, the United States, Russia, China and Japan. Beijing wants the talks revived, but Washington, Seoul and Tokyo insist that the North first take tangible steps towards denuclearisation.

Dr Lee Seong Hyon, of South Korean think-tank Sejong Institute, told The Straits Times that while Pyongyang's earlier missile tests had often ended in failure, recent successes suggest "we cannot sit around and watch".

He added: "There must be a way to engage North Korea and do something about the situation."

Pyongyang fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile that flew 500km towards Japan and breached Japan's air defence identification zone for the first time. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un yesterday declared the test the "greatest success" and claimed the US and the Pacific are now "within striking range".

Undated photos released yesterday show a test firing of a strategic submarine- launched ballistic missile, and Mr Kim (in white) viewing the launch at an undisclosed location.
Undated photos released yesterday show a test firing of a strategic submarine-launched ballistic missile, and Mr Kim viewing the launch at an undisclosed location. PHOTOS: REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A military source told South Korea's Yonhap News Agency that the launch had been made at an acute angle to limit its range. If fired at the optimum angle and fully fuelled, it could travel more than 2,500km, the source added.

The launch prompted the foreign ministers of China, Japan and South Korea - in Tokyo for an annual trilateral meeting on Wednesday - to jointly denounce the provocative act. Experts called on Beijing, a close ally of the North, to step up to the plate.

Undated photos released yesterday show a test firing of a strategic submarine- launched ballistic missile, and Mr Kim (in white) viewing the launch at an undisclosed location.
Undated photos released yesterday show a test firing of a strategic submarine-launched ballistic missile, and Mr Kim (in white) viewing the launch at an undisclosed location. PHOTOS: REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Dr Narushige Michishita, Japan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre's Asia Programme, said: "Given the significant leverage that China has vis-a-vis North Korea, it was another demonstration of how China is not serious in stopping North Korea from behaving irresponsibly."

Professor Tosh Minohara of Kobe University said it was a chance for China "to show it can be a responsible global superpower".

But Dr Masashi Nishihara, president of Japan's Research Institute for Peace and Security, felt Beijing would take concrete actions only when the North succeeds in miniaturising its nuclear warheads to the point where they can be loaded onto the missiles.

Pyongyang fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile that flew 500km towards Japan and breached Japan's air defence identification zone for the first time. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un yesterday declared the test the "greatest success" and claimed the US and the Pacific are now "within striking range".

Chinese state-run newspaper China Daily yesterday insisted Beijing's influence over Pyongyang was overstated. It also noted China's "consistent" position that the North's security concerns are genuine and should be addressed.

What Pyongyang's recent missile launches have done, said Dr Euan Graham of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, is to "buttress Seoul's concern and make the case for its participation in the Thaad system", referring to the US-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defence anti-missile system set to be deployed in South Korea.

"Beijing's opposition (would) put it in a rather embarrassing spot."

But while the North's neighbours are edgy about its missile tests, some analysts warn against restarting talks now. Said Dr Michishita: "Dialogue with North Korea is premature. Last-ditch rush efforts to talk to the North Koreans often end with one-sided concessions without North Korea making similarly important concessions."

Still, in an election year, the US appears to be passive over Pyongyang. Sejong's Dr Lee said: "The US has so far been sitting back and not engaging North Korea. If the situation is left uncontained or unsupervised by the US, Pyongyang will become a threat - and not just by words - in the future."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2016, with the headline 'N. Korea poses growing threat with latest missile launch'. Print Edition | Subscribe