Image courtesy of Daniel Bernard on Unsplash
By William Tucker
North Korea decided to make good on its warning from earlier this year and test-launch a long-range cruise missile, which Pyongyang described as “strategic.” By using the moniker “strategic,” Pyongyang may have implied that such a missile can carry a nuclear warhead, but whether or not North Korea has developed a warhead small and rugged enough for this new weapon is unknown.
The missile test was successful. With a range of just under 1,000 miles, this new weapon is capable of reaching much of Japan.
North Korea is not prohibited from developing cruise missiles, since current sanctions only apply to ballistic missiles. Naturally, Pyongyang decided to launch a few ballistic missiles a few days later on September 15, just as it did six months ago in March.
Not to be outdone by its northern neighbor, South Korea launched its first ballistic missile from a submarine as a deterrent. Though North Korea is working on a similar capability, Pyongyang does not yet have a reliable submarine development program to create vessels with a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) capability, though Pyongyang is trying to close that gap.
The Missile Tests Show that Tensions Remain High Between North and South Korea
The dueling missile tests clearly demonstrate that the animosity found on the Korean peninsula has not waned in recent years. These regional tensions also concern Korea’s neighbors, since the missile contest has the range to reach shores beyond the Korean peninsula. In reality, though, no nation in the region wants war.
North Korea Would Have Considerable Difficulty Waging a War
North Korea may act bellicose at the best of times, but its military equipment is so antiquated that it wouldn’t fetch a fair price at a flea market. North Korea has made strides in several areas to compensate for the imbalance – such as nuclear weapons – and it is important to remember that old weapons still pose the ability to cause harm.
Another issue that hinders North Korea’s ability to wage war is a lack of fuel. Pyongyang is dependent on China for fuel deliveries, so there is no guarantee that China would or could deliver the necessary fuel supplies to sustain the North Korean war machine.
North Korea has limited options. As a result, it would need to rely on some sort of strategic capability to maintain its independence.
South Korea Would Also Have Hurdles in Starting a War
For its part, South Korea faces several hurdles as well if Seoul decided to start a war. Seoul is dependent on the U.S. for its security and much of its economic well-being. South Korea has a large economy, but 37% of its GDP is based upon exports. Those exports only make it to foreign markets because of U.S.-provided security.
China is South Korea’s largest trading partner. With the U.S. focusing on China as a strategic challenger, Seoul is caught in the middle.
Also worth mentioning is South Korea’s dependence on foreign energy to power its economic machine. Without U.S. security, South Korea would find itself in a vulnerable spot.
South Korea could redirect its economy away from China – although that would certainly cause financial pain – but it cannot forgo U.S. security guarantees. Washington plays an important role in keeping North Korea at bay, and the U.S. is far enough away that it doesn’t fear the type of domination that Korea has experienced at the hands of the Chinese and Japanese.
Without the U.S., South Korea may have to take a page from the North’s playbook and develop its own nuclear deterrent. However, the other regional powers do not want to see that happen.
Preventing Chinese Domination of the Region Is Key
The challenge for the U.S. is maintaining a Cold War ally in a non-Cold War context. The strategic rationale for supporting South Korea has shifted from containing communist expansion under the rule of Moscow to preventing Chinese domination of the Pacific region.
Keeping North Korea at bay is no longer about fighting communism but preventing China from using an impoverished North Korea. South Korea realizes Washington’s goodwill should not be taken for granted and is looking for a way to deter regional foes if the U.S. changes its security posture.
With this uncertainty in Seoul and desperation in Pyongyang, the situation on the Korean peninsula has raised tensions. However, the reality that each player faces is – for the time being – keeping everyone’s activities in check. While it may look like a conflict is in the offing, there is too much at stake for the Koreas and the regional players to take the conflict beyond mere rhetoric.