North Korea on Sunday, February 12th successfully launched the Pukguksong 2 – a missile showcasing new defensive/offensive capabilities. The launch coincided with a meeting between the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Donald Trump in the United States.
It was also the first test that Kim Jong Un, the supreme leader of North Korea, has supervised since Donald Trump became the 45th president of the USA. Pentagon experts have claimed it is a land variant of a similar missile (the Pukguksong -1) that was test fired from a submarine last year. The new test, however, is a matter of concern for Japan and the USA as the Pukguksong -2 flew farther than any previous tests – around 300 miles from the West Coast of North Korea before dropping into the Sea of Japan.
The international community, including the members of the UN Security Council were quick to condemn the launch with the USA and UK laying forth demands for tighter sanctions on North Korea. China, on the other hand has continued to oppose North Korea’s current stance but also stated that the root cause of the North Korean missile issue is the conflict between them and America/South Korea.
What do the new tests mean for relations between Washington and Pyongyang? President Trump has largely been muted in his stance on North Korea. Amongst others, he had tweeted that North Korea would not be allowed to develop an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) that was capable of reaching American shores when Kim Jong Un had threatened to test an ICBM on New Year’s Day.
However, President Trump has been silent on the latest test carried out on Sunday. This, combined with the reluctance to focus on criticism of North Korea’s documented human rights violations, might just open a portal for talks with them – something that the Obama administration was unable to achieve. On the other hand, Pyongyang too hasn’t resorted to name calling and has been monitoring the activities of President Trump closely.
President Trump’s silence on the matter might be owing to another reason, however. Given that the new missile system is, at best, an intermediate range missile (and not an ICBM as was believed originally) and doesn’t pose any threat to mainland America, it has not merited a response from President Trump – officially or on Twitter. On the other hand, North Korea had indulged in a similar confrontation when it conducted an underground nuclear blast four months into President Obama’s first term. That particular idea backfired, as President Obama hardened his attitude towards North Korea for the rest of his presidency and was instrumental in pushing for economic and military sanctions on them, as well as imploring the international community to book Kim Jong Un for human right violations against people in North Korea.
It also cannot be denied that China will play an important role in shaping the nature of relations between Pyongyang and Washington. Given the extensive relations that Beijing shares with Pyongyang, President Trump could do well by ensuring that China acts as a vital buffer between the two countries. Reiterating the ‘One China’ policy has in some ways ensured that an uneasy truce still prevails between the USA and China. However, North Korea continues to be a challenge for Asia. The UN Security Council has slapped six rounds of economic and military sanctions which prohibit the country to carry out ballistic missile launches. This has, however, not deterred Kim Jong Un, as North Korea carried out more than an estimated 20 ballistic missile tests from January through to October 2016.
It has also been ascertained that the Pukguksong -1 has a range of around 400-450 kilometres. Experts also state that the range can be extended or changed by changing the firing angle of the missile. Also, like its predecessor, the Pukguksong -2 uses a solid-fuel system to power itself. This in turn requires lesser infrastructure to launch it, as opposed to a traditional liquid fuel based system, thereby making it harder to monitor them. There is speculation that there may be both solid and liquid fuel-system based variants.
North Korea is a big test that the president will have to deal with sooner or later. While President Trump has promised to deal with the ‘big, big’ problem of North Korea ‘very strongly’ how he and his administration shape their policy in relation to North Korea and Kim’s administration, will set the tone of his presidency and his support in the far East.