On February 7th, despite strong international opposition, North Korea successfully launched Kwangmyongsong-4, an earth observation satellite. This marks its second successful satellite launch in recent years, but sparks deep concerns over North Korea’s potential use of ballistic missiles through the same technology. According to CNN, the United States, the Soviet Union and China have all historically used intercontinental ballistic missiles to launch satellites. A country could achieve the reverse through minor modifications, according to China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. Given North Korea’s successful nuclear test on February 6th, it does not appear unlikely that North Korea will combine the two and deliver nuclear warheads through its launch vehicles in the future.
Japan’s response represents those of the most concerned countries. According to The Japan Times, following North Korea’s aggressive moves, Japan will consider expanding its missile interception capabilities. Currently Japan relies on a two-tiered system to protect itself from potential missile threats. The system calls for first trying to shoot down the incoming missile with SM-3 interceptors borne on Aegis vessels, at an altitude of more than 100 km. If this fails, Japan would fire PAC-3 Patriot rockets to intercept missiles near their targets. As of now, only four of the six Aegis destroyers owned by Japan have SM-3 interceptors. Covering the entire nation requires at least three vessels. Therefore, Japan plans to upgrade two of the Aegis vessels and building two more. Japan and the United States will also jointly upgrade the Aegis Combat System to extend the range of the interceptors. At the same time, Japan’s Defense Ministry is considering introducing the THAAD system, a land-based, high-altitude interception system developed by the United States. The THAAD system would serve as a another layer of defense between the SM-3 interceptors and PAC-3 Patriot rockets.
Also considering the THAAD system is South Korea. According to The New York Times, the United States has wanted to deploy the THAAD system in South Korea for years. Fearing that China, its largest trading partner, would reject the idea, South Korea has refrained from the move until recently. The series of nuclear experiments and the launch of the satellite from North Korea have convinced the South to seriously considering the introduction of the THAAD system. The decision, however, did not gain too much popularity, either from home or from abroad. In the beginning of February, demonstrations against THAAD erupted in the streets of Korea. Protesters all over the country expressed concerns for electromagnetic radiation and potential harmful effects for tourism and business development. On the other hand, both China and Russia have expressed strong opposition, citing the monitoring capabilities THAAD would bring to the United States and South Korea. “The X-band radar in the THAAD system can detect activities in as far as Central Asia. This will jeopardize China’s strategic security interest and international strategic stability,” said Wu Qian, spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Defense. South Korea, nevertheless, responded with a surprisingly strong tone. “This is a matter of we will decide upon according to our own security and national interests,” a spokesperson for President Park Geun-hye said on Wednesday. “The Chinese had better recognize this point.”
North Korea has long been a serious problem for East Asian countries, but the problem has never escalated to the degree it has today. King Jong-un seems to believe that clinging to nuclear weapons is the best strategy to protect himself and North Korea from the United States, Japan and South Korea. China, although unhappy about what North Korea’s plans, still regards North Korea as a buffer between itself and the military presence of the U.S. in East Asia. It also fears the potential collapse of the North Korean state, which might bring refugees and other factors of instability to China. Japan and South Korea, on the other hand, have to respond to North Korea’s aggression by upgrading their militaries. This will in turn alarm the Chinese and the Russians, potentially causing an arms race. Taking the already complicated history among Japan, South Korea and China into account, the story will only get more complex.
Six years have almost passed since the six-party talk, a multilateral forum for East Asia and the U.S. to bring North Korea to heal, discontinued. The international community has not come up with a better alternative. Kim Jong-un remains as unpredictable as he was seven years ago and a regional crisis looks poised on the horizon.