North Korea’s 2nd ICBM test au­gurs a new nor­mal

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

For all its blus­ter and over-the-top pro­pa­ganda, North Korea of­ten does just what it says it will do when it comes to its weapons de­vel­op­ment. So it goes with its light­ning-quick push to per­fect an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile. The clear mes­sage af­ter Fri­day’s late-night test, the sec­ond in a month of a mis­sile that may be able to reach most of the US main­land: Get used to this - it’s the new nor­mal.

So what ex­actly does that mean? From the West’s point of view, it por­tends more and scarier mis­sile and nu­clear tests, each one more pow­er­ful than the last; a dogged de­ter­mi­na­tion by the North to ig­nore, as it has for decades, fi­nan­cial sanc­tions and other out­side pres­sure, in­clud­ing a slightly more force­ful clam­p­down from its big­gest en­abler, China; and an in­creas­ing like­li­hood that a de­ter­mined, unchecked North Korea will soon turn its rhetoric about be­ing ca­pa­ble of nuk­ing Amer­ica’s heart­land into a re­al­ity.

All this is meant to force the United States to ac­cept terms that Py­ongyang fa­vors: a for­mal end to the Korean War that would re­move US forces from the Korean Penin­sula, weaken ties be­tween Seoul and Washington, and make it much more likely that the North’s ul­ti­mate dream of a Korea united un­der its rule comes true. Out­siders have long dis­missed or ig­nored North Korea’s atomic boasts and pro­pa­ganda, even as they’ve failed through sanc­tions, threats and iso­la­tion to hin­der the North’s progress. It re­mains to be seen whether an ef­fort led by a Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion dis­tracted by po­lit­i­cal in­fight­ing can rise to the most se­ri­ous chal­lenge yet in what has been a decades-long nu­clear stand­off.

To see ex­actly what North Korea is aim­ing for, just read its pro­pa­ganda. The North promised a stream of mis­sile “gift pack­ages” for the United States af­ter its first ICBM test on July 4. Then on Satur­day, hours af­ter its sec­ond test of the Hwa­song-14, the coun­try’s leader, Kim Jong Un, was quoted as say­ing by the North’s of­fi­cial Korean Cen­tral News Agency that “the US trum­pet­ing about war and ex­treme sanc­tions and threat against the (North) only em­bold­ens the lat­ter and of­fers a bet­ter ex­cuse for its ac­cess to nukes”.

‘Grave warn­ing’

Fri­day’s test “is meant to send a grave warn­ing to the US,” Kim said, and “make the pol­icy-mak­ers of the US prop­erly un­der­stand that the US, an ag­gres­sion-minded state, would not go scot-free if it dares pro­voke the” North. That does not mean North Korea is plan­ning to at­tack the United States with a nu­clear mis­sile. The coun­try’s lead­er­ship val­ues its sur­vival above ev­ery­thing else, in­clud­ing the wel­fare of its peo­ple. North Korea’s huge ar­tillery and mis­sile ar­ma­ment along the North-South bor­der could do se­ri­ous dam­age to Seoul, but such an at­tack would spell the end of Py­ongyang be­cause of Washington’s mas­sive weapons ad­van­tage. Nor is the North quite there mil­i­tar­ily. It must still prove that its ICBMs can nav­i­gate the mul­ti­tude of tech­ni­cal hur­dles needed to ac­cu­rately strike a far­away tar­get.

Each new test, how­ever, makes that more likely. Hav­ing a work­ing “nu­clear strate­gic force” would also al­low the North to in­tro­duce doubt into the US-South Korea al­liance. If fight­ing broke out be­tween the ri­val Koreas, the ar­gu­ment goes, would Washington re­ally rush in know­ing that Py­ongyang could hit the US heart­land with its nukes? The lat­est test also does some­thing that North Korea strives for in ev­ery word of its pro­pa­ganda: It bol­sters the dig­nity of the proud, au­thor­i­tar­ian state, which has long seen it­self as sur­rounded by hos­tile na­tions bent on its de­struc­tion. How many Third World US en­e­mies, af­ter all, have built ICBM pro­grams?

The mes­sage is as much for the elite in Py­ongyang as for the North’s en­e­mies, in­tended to so­lid­ify sup­port for a leader who, de­spite mas­sive ex­ter­nal pres­sure, can stand up to the su­per­pow­ers threat­en­ing his peo­ple. Un­less Seoul, Washington and their part­ners can find a way to stop the North, the near fu­ture looks pretty clear. “More tests are needed to as­sess and val­i­date the re­li­a­bil­ity of the Hwa­song-14, so North Korea is sure to fol­low this launch with many more,” mis­sile ex­pert Michael Elle­man wrote on the 38 North web­site af­ter Fri­day’s launch.

More tests. More in­sta­bil­ity. More pres­sure to pur­sue indige­nous nu­clear pro­grams among North Korea’s other pre­sumed tar­gets, Seoul and Tokyo, as they lose faith in the US “nu­clear um­brella”. And more pos­si­bil­ity that a mis­cal­cu­la­tion in one of the world’s most heav­ily armed re­gions could lead to fight­ing. That’s the new nor­mal. — AP

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