North Korea's ICBM claim: China could face more US pressure while Japan needs urgent defence upgrade

A South Korea soldier watching a news broadcast about a North Korean missile launch, at a railway station in Seoul on July 4, 2017.
A South Korea soldier watching a news broadcast about a North Korean missile launch, at a railway station in Seoul on July 4, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING/TOKYO - North Korea's claim that its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test launch on Tuesday (July 4) was a success could lead Washington to heap more pressure on Beijing, Chinese analysts said.

It also accelerates the need for Japan to adopt more advanced defence equipment to deal with the ballistic missile threat, Japanese experts said, noting that the nation's systems are woefully inadequate.

For China, the United States would likely step up political and diplomatic pressure, including imposing more economic sanctions on companies and tourist agencies that have dealings with the reclusive state, said North Korean expert Cai Jian of Fudan University.

"But China will first consider its own national interest. It will not give in to pressures from the US that easily," Professor Cai told The Straits Times, noting the measured response from the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Tuesday (July 4).

Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular press briefing that the United Nations Security Council resolutions had clear rules on North Korean missile launches and China is opposed to Pyongyang violating those rules.

"While Pyongyang may have indeed gained some progress in its missile programmes, it is unlikely to have achieved the capabilities that it has claimed," said Prof Cai. "The situation is not that dire and we have not come to that stage yet. So, the official response is still to reiterate the usual point of calling for calm and restraint from all parties."

 
 
 
 
 

This, too, is the cautious sentiment in Japan, where government officials have not acknowledged Pyongyang's claims.

Defence Minister Tomomi Inada said Japan is still analysing the launch to determine if it was, indeed, an ICBM.

Japanese analysts told The Straits Times that Tokyo's main concern is still Pyongyang's medium-range missiles that put Japan within its crosshairs. But any ICBM development would convolute the regional security paradigm and make it all the more urgent for Japan to be able to defend itself.

Dr Ken Jimbo, a security expert with Keio University, noted that the North's declared purpose for developing an ICBM was to target the US.

This means, he said, the US' extended deterrence to Japan "would potentially be diluted because it directly threatens the security of the mainland".

Dr Masashi Nishihara of the Research Institute for Peace and Security in Tokyo also said an ICBM suggests "improved quality" in the altitude and range of the North's missiles. Given the altitude of over 2,500km of yesterday's rocket, Dr Nishihara said: "I'm not sure whether our Navy-based Aegis SM-3 Ballistic Missile Defence System can cope with incoming missiles with such flying patterns."

Analysts said that Beijing cannot be expected to single-handedly resolve the issue, which will require a concerted effort involving stakeholders including the US, China, Japan and South Korea.

US President Donald Trump believes that China, as North Korea's most important trading partner, holds the key to reining in its neighbour, and last week blacklisted a Chinese regional bank for providing financing to North Korea's weapons programme.

Peking University's North-east Asian expert Wang Dong said that instead of "wrongly targeting" China, Washington should work with Beijing to try to lower tensions in the Korean peninsula through diplomatic means.

"The US should not make the wrong assumption that China has the ability to resolve this crisis. Beijing has made a lot of efforts but clearly there are limits to what it can do," said Prof Wang.

"If the US takes further actions against China, North Korea will just watch happily," he added.

Kobe University defence expert Tosh Minohara, too, said China will find joint operation with the US to curb the threat "more amenable".

In Moscow, a statement released after a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping called for a simultaneous freezing of North Korea's missile and nuclear programme and large-scale US-South Korean military exercises that anger Pyongyang.