News analysis

North Korea's latest missile test highlights strategic dilemma

North Korea's latest missile test over Japan was not a surprise to most Korea analysts, but it highlights the strategic dilemma that the United States faces.

The US reaction was stern, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying an increasingly aggressive North Korea threatens the region and endangers the entire world.

But the fact that the missile did not threaten the US or any of its territories allows Washington to shift the onus to the United Nations Security Council, and to China and Russia to fully implement existing sanctions.

The council met last night to talk again about North Korea. "My best guess is more sanctions," Mr Will Saetren, a nuclear policy specialist at the Institute for China-America Studies, told The Straits Times.

Analysts said the latest test underlines there is no quick way to resolve the North Korean crisis.

Dr Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia, told ST over e-mail: "These tests demonstrate that UN sanctions are not a quick fix. The bottom line is that there is no way President Donald Trump can change the fact that North Korea is a de facto nuclear state."

Dr Lee Sung-Youn, professor of Korean studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, told ST over e-mail: "The Kim Jong Un regime is now hypnotising the US into believing it can live with a nuclear, missiles-loaded North, as long as it doesn't strike US territories."

He added: "The sum effect of this is that before sanctions enforcement takes effect - two or three years - North Korea seeks to get the US to accept a nuclear North Korea as fait accompli, while giving wind to those who claim that since sanctions 'don't work' and 'hurt only the people', they should be relaxed or lifted at once."

Dr Thayer said North Korea is unlikely to attack the US. "North Korea has no incentive to attack the US and be destroyed in the nuclear holocaust that follows. North Korea has every incentive to have a nuclear option available to resist US threats. Kim Jong Un is not a madman, he is a cunning survivor."

Some analysts do not see the latest test as more provocative than any previous ones.

"These are provocations to us, but North Korea is not doing it to provoke," Dr Balbina Hwang, visiting professor at Georgetown University, told ST over the phone. "North Korea wants a working deliverable missile programme, for which it has to test."

Its inflammatory rhetoric should not cause panic, she added.

Proponents of sanctions in Washington maintain that China and Russia have been the chief enablers of Pyongyang.

China, which has a long trade relationship with its neighbour, does not want North Korea to collapse as that could send hundreds of thousands of refugees into China, and bring US forces right up to China's borders.

Dr Hwang said: "Fundamentally, North Korea's strategic goal is to reduce or eliminate US influence on the Korean peninsula and Asia. The problem is Russia and China share that fundamental strategic goal. It is a problem in the short term for Russia and China, but they have calculated they are willing to take that cost."

Resolving the North Korean crisis would require a return to six-party talks, said Dr Thayer.

He said: "Trump needs a strategy to manage this situation in the long run by increasing sanctions gradually and waiting until they take effect. At some point, all the six parties involved - China, the United States, North and South Korea, Japan and Russia - will have to return to the negotiating table."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2017, with the headline 'Missile test highlights strategic dilemma'. Subscribe