North Korea launched its first ballistic missile in two and a half months during the early hours of Nov. 29. The missile came down in an area within Japan’s exclusive economic zone approximately 250 kilometers from Aomori Prefecture. The latest launch should be taken as an indication that the North Korean crisis has entered a new phase.
The missile was launched on a “lofted” trajectory, which allows missiles to fly at a steep angle. The missile’s distance can be contained this way as it flies to trace an arc. Its highest altitude topped 4,000 kilometers — a first for a North Korean missile — with the distance traveled reaching nearly 1,000 kilometers. It also flew for over 50 minutes.
Pyongyang later announced that the missile was a Hwasong-15 — a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the entire U.S. mainland. If launched on a standard trajectory, the missile range could reach an estimated 13,000 kilometers, meaning that it could cover Washington D.C. and New York.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un personally witnessed the latest launch and said a historic success was made for his country in completing its nuclear armament. While what he meant precisely remains unknown, if he declared that the North now has the capability to attack the United States with nuclear weapons, the degree of the ongoing crisis has significantly increased.
North Korea has been rushing to develop nuclear weapons and missiles to obtain deterrence against the U.S. The reason for the North to disregard objections even from its patron China could suggest that Pyongyang is desperate as it believes the only way to maintain its current regime is to acquire nuclear armament.
The North seeks to negotiate with the United States as a nuclear power on an equal footing. Kim’s latest remark could be viewed as a strategic move to start such negotiations with Washington.
Some experts in the U.S. argue that the country has no choice but to allow North Korea to have nuclear weapons. Such an argument derives from the nuclear deterrence theory, in which nuclear powers keep each other in check so that neither of them would actually use nuclear weapons, or an understanding that Washington just needs to prevent the North from deploying intercontinental ballistic missiles that target the U.S. mainland.
However, Japan cannot accept such a situation because it could mean that Japan and South Korea would remain under a nuclear threat. If doubts emerge whether the U.S. would prepare itself for a possible nuclear attack on its own soil by North Korea to protect Japan and South Korea, it could shake Washington’s alliance with Tokyo and Seoul.
What Japan can do on its own is limited, but it cannot just stand idly by. In cooperation with the U.S. and South Korea, Japan needs to approach China and Russia to tighten the net around the North to give up its nuclear weapons program. Tokyo is urged to be fully committed to make diplomatic efforts to prevent the crisis from worsening even further.