The pace is picking up in terms of foreign relations, particularly when it comes to the hermit kingdom of North Korea and their diminutive dictator, Kim Jong-un. Just yesterday we looked at Kim’s launch of a short-range missile over the weekend and what that might portend for American policy in that region. Was it a warning shot across Joe Biden’s bow? There was no official announcement of the launch on North Korea’s state-run news network, so the test didn’t make much of a splash, either literally or figuratively. But last night the situation changed. North Korea fired two ballistic missiles that crashed in the Sea of Japan. If this wasn’t a case of trying to send a message, I don’t know what is. (NBC News)
North Korea launched two ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan on Thursday, a U.S. official and Japan’s prime minister said.
South Korea also confirmed the launch.
A U.S. official told NBC News on Wednesday evening Washington time that they were most likely short-range ballistic missiles. Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, told reporters that the projectiles were ballistic missiles and that the action marked the first such provocation in a year.
The test “threatens the peace and security of the region and our nation. It is also against the U.N. resolution,” he said. “We strictly and strongly protest this launch.”
The official responses from the Biden administration, along with South Korea and Japan, were pretty much what you would expect. Everyone is “continuing to monitor the situation closely” and describing Kim’s missile and nuclear weapons programs as “a threat to the region and the world.” That’s accurate, but it doesn’t really get us any closer to a solution, assuming one is even possible. Jake Sullivan described the Biden administration’s review of its North Korea policy as being “in its final stages.”
There’s still no reason to become too terribly alarmed about this development. This is just Kim being Kim and returning to the same tactics he regularly employed for many years before Donald Trump’s attempts at cutting some sort of deal. The message is always the same. See? We have ICBMs. And you already know we have nukes. We might just be crazy enough to use them.
At least according to some experts on North Korea, however, that’s almost certainly not true. Kim wants to be able to threaten everyone, but as strange as he behaves, he’s not seriously crazy enough to launch an unprovoked first strike. He’d only get one shot at it before his few populated cities were smoking pools of melted glass. Sure, that would likely cause a lot of angst for the Chinese, but nobody really believes that they would want to start a world war just to defend whatever was left of North Korea, particularly if they fired first. Besides, China has always seen North Korea as a useful buffer between their border and the U.S. presence in South Korea. Looking at it from that perspective, a radioactive hellscape in the northern end of the peninsula would probably be a pretty good buffer too.
The most likely explanation for this launch is that Kim just wants to test the resolve of the new American administration. He would obviously love to have Biden offer to lift some of the sanctions on his country, but his expectations of that actually happening are low. (Let’s hope he’s right.) So we’re back to saber-rattling.
If I had to predict right now what Joe Biden’s North Korea policy will look like, I would guess that it will be pretty much the same as Trump’s except without all of the flowers, love letters and offers of in-person summits. He’ll leave the sanctions in place, continue to align with South Korea, and try to wait Kim out. It’s a rather futile position, but what other choices are there other than an armed incursion? And that would probably be far more disastrous for the United States if we’re the ones to strike first.