Cal­cu­lated rocket launch shakes Ja­pan from its slum­ber

Mis­sile’s range shows Py­ongyang’s im­prov­ing ca­pac­ity for de­struc­tion

The Irish Times - - World News - David McNeill in Tokyo

Break­fast tele­vi­sion in Tokyo is nor­mally a frothy mélange of chil­dren’s car­toons, va­ri­ety shows and soft news. Now for the sec­ond time in less than a month the na­tion has wo­ken up in­stead to warn­ings of North Korean mis­siles fly­ing over­head.

Pub­lic ser­vice broad­caster NHK said yes­ter­day morn­ing’s in­ter­me­di­ate-range mis­sile, launched just be­fore 7am, flew in space at an al­ti­tude of 770km be­fore drop­ping into the sea about 2,200km off Hokkaido in Ja­pan’s north.

Few were sur­prised: Py­ongyang has re­peat­edly threat­ened to lob more mis­siles into the Pa­cific as it hones its ca­pac­ity to send bombs, in­clud­ing nu­clear bombs, across con­ti­nents. Like all coun­tries that have that ca­pac­ity, it must test each stage of de­vel­op­ment.

The North fired two long-range in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles in July. On Au­gust 29th, it sent an­other in­ter­me­di­ate-range mis­sile over Hokkaido. A few days later it tested its sixth nu­clear de­vice – what it claims to have been a hy­dro­gen bomb – to global con­dem­na­tion.

Th­ese tests show Py­ongyang’s ca­pac­ity for de­struc­tion steadily im­prov­ing. The Septem­ber 3rd bomb was its most pow­er­ful yet, say ex­perts. Yes­ter­day’s mis­sile re­port­edly flew about 3,700km, much farther than pre­vi­ous ef­forts and within reach of the US is­land of Guam.

Ja­pan’s de­fence min­is­ter It­sunori On­odera re­cently called the North’s nu­clear pro­gramme “per­haps the most se­ri­ous threat” fac­ing his na­tion since the sec­ond World War.

Prime min­is­ter Shinzo Abe, ar­riv­ing back from a trip to In­dia yes­ter­day morn­ing, urged the world to unite against what he called the North’s re­peated provo­ca­tions. “We need to let North Korea re­alise that if they keep tak­ing this path, they will have no bright fu­ture,” he said.

Yet, the North’s provo­ca­tions are clearly cal­cu­lated. Yes­ter­day’s launch was a cal­i­brated re­sponse to fresh sanc­tions im­posed by the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, fol­low­ing the last nu­clear test. The sanc­tions banned all tex­tile ex­ports from the iso­lated coun­try and cut ship­ments of petrol and other fuel on which it de­pends.

North Korea’s state me­dia re­sponded with typ­i­cally fu­ri­ous rhetoric, blam­ing the “Yan­kees” and Ja­pan for “cook­ing up” the sanc­tions res­o­lu­tion. Ear­lier this week, Py­ongyang threat­ened to sink Ja­pan into the sea and re­duce Amer­ica to “ashes and dark­ness” for block­ing what it views as its le­git­i­mate right to de­fence.

The se­cu­rity coun­cil re­sisted pres­sure from Amer­ica and its al­lies, how­ever, to im­pose a to­tal ban on ship­ments of oil into North Korea. Rus­sia and China, which sup­plies most of the North’s crude oil, say that an em­bargo would cor­ner the North and pro­voke its lead­er­ship to lash out.

Mil­i­tary ex­er­cises

Rus­sian pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has pro­posed de­fus­ing the cri­sis with a “freeze-for-freeze”, in which Amer­ica and South Korea would agree to sus­pend “provoca­tive” an­nual mil­i­tary ex­er­cises around the Korean Penin­sula in re­turn for a North Korean mora­to­rium on mis­sile tests.

There seems lit­tle ap­petite for such a com­pro­mise. US sec­re­tary of state Rex Tiller­son on yes­ter­day urged Bei­jing and Moscow to do more to rein in Py­ongyang. “China and Rus­sia must in­di­cate their in­tol­er­ance for th­ese reck­less mis­sile launches by tak­ing di­rect ac­tions of their own,” he said.

Hawks in Ja­pan and the US view talks with the North as re­ward for its threats. Even South Korean pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in, who came to of­fice in May pledg­ing to en­gage Py­ongyang in di­a­logue, said fol­low­ing the lat­est launch that talk was “im­pos­si­ble in a sit­u­a­tion like this”.

What that means is more sabre rat­tling and al­most cer­tainly more tests over Ja­pan.

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