Last Sunday, during the early morning hours, the North Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff announced the launch of a medium-range ballistic missile.
Said missile – the same type as the one which, on February 8, 2016, brought the satellite Kwangmyonsong 4 into the space – has a clear strategic, political and symbolic significance.
The missile was test fired at the same time as President Donald Trump was having lunch with the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, in Florida.
The missile was launched from the North Pyongan Province, exactly from the village of Tongchang-ri, on the border with China, at 7.55 a.m., and traveled 500 kilometers – after a quick 550 kilometer vertical ascent. It is allegedly a modified Musudan missile, or a more traditional Hwasong-10, a missile already tested by North Korea nine times, weighing twenty tons and with a maximum range of 2500-4000 kilometers.
Only this time was the launch a full technical success.
Both Trump and Shinzo Abe responded directly during a press conference in Florida where their Summit was being held. Their response was based on full convergence between Japan and the United States.
It was also based on a clear and strong condemnation of the launch, as well as on Trump’s explicit support to Japan with specific reference to its military and strategic security, when he said that “the United States stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100%.”
It is appropriate, however, to better analyze the US support, which strangely did not mention South Korea, just as Kim Jong Un made only two mass appearances in 2016 and the North Korean Minister for State Security, Kim Won Hong was fired and demoted a few days ago.
Currently no one can destabilize North Korea and no one is interested in doing so but, in any case, in view of a “democratic” regime change following a transformation and international support to North Korea’s economy, the current ruling class in the country wants certain assurances.
Therefore it would be good to build a project for supporting the North Korean economy, which China itself does no longer want to follow, and later hold concrete strategic and military talks.
A further rational explanation may also be that of a missile launch immediately preceding February 16, the birthday of Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father – a date on which North Korea often made missile launches.
Moreover, the North Korean regime maintains that all the launches are related to its space program, in which a communications satellite was successfully launched as early as 2012.
China, too, was taken by surprise by this launch, an operation that just a week ago, during a confidential mission to Pyongyang, a Chinese diplomat, Wu Dawei, had explicitly advised the North Korean leaders against trying.
Nevertheless China did not support the US efforts within the United Nations for further strengthening sanctions after last month’s missile launch operations, with the argument that a greater economic crackdown would destabilize North Korea permanently, thus creating a dangerous strategic void for everybody in the Asian peninsula.
Furthermore China, which is South Korea’s largest trading partner, notified that it considers the US THAAD system a threat to its security.
An update of the South Korean defense systems which, while not certainly favouring North Korea – but rather placing it in an escalation logic – is not even liked by China, by Iran and by the areas of the Greater Middle East not hegemonized by the United States.
Moreover, we do not yet know whether North Korea really has a chance to build and perfect a missile capable of carrying an inevitably small nuclear charge up to the Hawaii islands or Alaska.
Furthermore, the North Korean government itself announced that its enriched-uranium and plutonium production activities, in Nyongbyon, are still operating in full swing.
Hence there are two critical factors to be emphasized: the increasing coldness of China, which is fed up with an undisciplined ally that is clearly on a collision course with its interests in the region; the silence of Russia, which needs a strong and “dangerous ally” like North Korea on the sidelines of the Greater Middle East.
Hence, as said before, the significance of the new launch is now very clear: North Korea has the strategic and military autonomy enabling it not to need China’s traditional mediation. It can negotiate a bilateral agreement with its old allies, namely the Russian Federation; it does not want the definition of a credible missile threat to South Korea and finally it wants to deal on equal terms with the major powers of the region, Japan, Indonesia, the United States and India to establish a new economic and geopolitical mechanism which stabilizes the North Korean regime.
Hence there can only be one single solution.
Instead of creating the myth – unnecessary and devoid of practical implications – of the bad boy or the uncontrollable, and maybe a bit “crazy”, free rider, the Six Party Talks process should be resumed, with other guidelines.
As is well-known, the six-party process, involving South Korea, North Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia, ended just following the protests of the UN Security Council meeting of April 13, 2009 condemning the launch of a North Korean satellite which, however, had failed at the time.
Certainly North Korea wants to be integrated into the market-world, but it does not want to do so in such a subordinate position as to radically transform its current political regime.
From this viewpoint, in the future North Korea will strengthen its nuclear, civilian and military activities, but it will particularly rebuild a strategic relationship with Iran and, indirectly, with the Russian Federation, as well as also with Bashar el Assad’s new Syria and with the Vietnamese area, where it shall accept competition with China, even at geopolitical level.
Hence if Donald J. Trump does not go back over the same moralistic, naive and ineffective road as George W. Bush, and does not only talks about the “axis of evil”, but rather rethinks the whole Eastern and Asian system – even from a position of strength – he shall build a new role for North Korea.
If supported in its economic modernization efforts, as indeed the United States did from 2003 to 2007 in the framework of the Six Party Talks, in the future North Korea could prove to be part of an “axis of good”.
This means an ally not subordinate to China, which is really needed by the United States in Asia, and a very interesting economic development point of reference, as well as a useful collaborator for containing the new Southeast Asia’s military and economic realities.
The future will never be entirely peaceful in the region and having a number of allies, or anyway non-aligned countries in Southeast Asia, could be extremely useful for the United States.
GIANCARLO ELIA VALORI
Honorable de l’Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France