Situation precarious, missteps could spark war, analysts warn

People's Army tanks displayed during a military parade in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017, marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung.
People's Army tanks displayed during a military parade in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017, marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung. PHOTO: AFP

The situation in North Korea is at its most precarious in many years, and any slight miscalculation by Pyongyang could spark military conflict, Chinese analysts have said.

While the reclusive communist state did not carry out a ballistic missile or nuclear test yesterday as widely speculated to mark the 105th birth anniversary of its founder Kim Il Sung, uncertainties still remain due to the unpredictable nature of both the North Korean and US leaders, they said.

"Any missteps from both sides could lead to conflicts, especially moves from North Korea," said North-east Asia expert Wang Dong from Peking University. "Nonetheless, no actions from North Korea today is a good sign that tensions may ease off slightly," he added.

Washington has threatened military actions against Pyongyang if it conducts its sixth nuclear test this weekend.

Professor Wang noted that while the United States has been displaying its military might to send a message to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, including sending a naval strike force to the region, it has said that it is not seeking a regime change in the country. "This offers room for further talks, but it all depends on how Pyongyang will react," Prof Wang added.

  • WEAPONS ON DISPLAY

  • INTERCONTINENTAL BALLISTIC MISSILES (ICBM)

    Several KN-08 missiles were displayed on trucks at the parade, said Associated Press.

    Military analysts say the missiles could one day be capable of hitting targets as far away as the continental United States, although North Korea has yet to flight-test them.

    North Korean soldiers also paraded large rockets covered by canisters that were rolled out in two different types of transporter erector launcher trucks, or TELs.

    But an official from South Korea's defence ministry could not immediately confirm whether any of the rockets represented a new type of ICBM.

    SOLID-FUEL MISSILES

    North Korea's Pukkuksong, or KN-11 missile, shown for the first time, can be fired from a submarine. It is said to have a range of more than 1,000km, which can reach South Korea as well as parts of China and Japan.

    In a test launch in August last year, the missile flew 500km and crashed into waters near Japan.

    Such a weapon could give the North the ability to strike without warning from a vessel somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.

    Also shown at the parade was the Pukkuksong-2, or KN-15 missile, a land-based variant. In a test launch in February, it flew 500km before dropping into international waters between the Korean peninsula and Japan.

Given the complex geopolitical situation in the region, North Korea expert Cai Jian of Fudan University thinks the likelihood of a full-blown conflict is very slim. "The US has to consider North Korea's ability to retaliate, as well as the opposition from the neighbouring big countries like China and Russia. Its allies - South Korea and Japan - are also extremely worried," he said.

Last Friday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi sought Russia's support to "bring all the parties back to the negotiating table" after warning that a war on the Korean peninsula could break out.

In a call to his Moscow counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Mr Wang said: "China is ready to coordinate closely with Russia to help cool down as quickly as possible the situation on the peninsula and encourage the parties concerned to resume dialogue."

He was referring to the six-party talks - between China, Russia, the US, South Korea, Japan and North Korea - on Pyongyang's nuclear programme, which had been suspended since 2009.

It has been reported that Beijing has deployed a 150,000-strong ground troop at the North Korean border. But China's defence ministry last Wednesday refuted this in a statement, calling it a "complete fabrication".

Meanwhile, in Washington, unnamed US officials have told the Associated Press that the Trump administration has decided on a new North Korea strategy after a two-month review. Officials said they will apply maximum pressure and seek engagement at the same time to get Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear programme.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 16, 2017, with the headline 'Situation precarious, missteps could spark war, analysts warn'. Print Edition | Subscribe