Andrew O’Neil, Professor of Political Science with Griffith Business School
North Korea’s announcement that it has successfully tested a ballistic missile with an intercontinental range has been highly anticipated for some time. Despite a string of recent highly publicised failures, the country’s missile testing program has been coming along in leaps and bounds over the past three decades.
Yesterday’s flight-test of the Hwasong-14 was intended to send a strong signal to the US – it occurred on 4 July – that the Kim Jong-un regime now possesses the option of striking the continental United States with a nuclear warhead if it chooses to do so.
But we should probably be a little cautious in concluding Pyongyang’s claim is necessarily credible. Its announcement of the test noted the missile flew just 933km; the accepted minimum range of an ICBM is 5,500km, and Los Angeles is just under 10,000km. That said, the latest test indicates at the very least that North Korea has made significant strides in widening the strike radius of its missile forces, which is serious cause for concern.
Also of concern is how the Trump administration will react. Characteristically, President Trump has responded with a volley of tweets, but this is no substitute for an integrated policy approach on the part of Washington. The Trump administration’s attempt to engage China to place further pressure on North Korea was always destined to fail and the US now has few if any options left.
There will probably be a further tightening of Security Council sanctions over North Korea, but there is limited evidence Beijing is serious in implementing sanctions on Pyongyang for fear it might lead to the collapse of the Kim regime. And, despite the tough talk on sanctions from Washington, the US has minimal direct leverage economically or politically over Pyongyang.
Is US military action a serious option? Theoretically, the US in partnership with South Korean forces could undertake major air strikes against North Korea’s known WMD targets. The US could quickly deploy the required assets to the region, and the US and South Korea possess detailed strike plans for such a scenario. But this action would be highly contingent on at least three factors. The first is a willingness by the Trump administration to wage a full-scale war on the Korean peninsula. As Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said recently, the consequences of war would be disaster on an unimaginable scale. The loss of life and physical damage would almost certainly eclipse anything the world has seen since WWII.
The second contingent factor would be gaining Beijing’s agreement (or at least getting a nod and a wink that China would not intervene to defend North Korea). The risks of a US-China conflict over the Korean peninsula are real and one could envisage a scenario where unilateral military strikes by the Trump administration triggered a Chinese military response.
The third contingent factor would be gaining agreement from US allies in the region, particularly South Korea. Without the agreement of South Korea, any US military action would risk rupturing the US-ROK alliance and lead to adverse consequences for other regional alliances, including with Japan and potentially Australia.