North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is all smiles after the test-firing of a new missile in photo released by the Korean Central News Agency on May 30, 2017. Friday's launch came a day after North Korea celebrated what it calls “Victory Day” — the anniversary of the end of the 1950-53 Korean War — and Pyongyang regularly times its missile tests to coincide with symbolic dates. Photo: KCNA / via Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is all smiles after the test-firing of a new missile in photo released by the Korean Central News Agency on May 30, 2017. Photo: KCNA

For some time now, North Korea has been alarming its neighbors with frequent ballistic-missile tests that have made it a potential flash-point for conflict. Fearing the devastation it would suffer in the eye of a nuclear storm in the region, Japan has been losing its cool. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been heightening such fears with  threats that Tokyo would be reduced “to ashes” should military conflict break out, and he has been able to get away with it while keeping the world on tenterhooks.

While North Korean missiles have even landed in Japan’s economic zone, the panicked Japanese ruling party has advised Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to start building missile shelters and carry out regular evacuation drills. In an uncharacteristic move for a Japanese leader, Abe has even urged traditional rival China to play a bigger role in restraining North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs, saying, “To resolve this problem peacefully, we would like to work with China, which has strong influence” over North Korea.

In its latest launches, Pyongyang has employed a series of short-range missiles to test four new systems. State-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun announced: “The series of recent strategic weapons tests show that we are not too far away from test-firing an intercontinental ballistic missile. The great success of test-firing an intercontinental ballistic missile, which we are sure to achieve, will mark a historic watershed moment in the failure of the US hostile policy against us.” It went on to note: “Historically speaking, the US has never dared to go to war with a country that possesses nuclear weapons or ICBMs.”

Apparently, with every new test, North Korea is getting closer to its ultimate target of hitting the US mainland.

During this crisis, US President Donald Trump stated that he would like to solve the matter diplomatically, but a “major, major conflict is possible”. However, after his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in April, Trump expressed more concern over North Korea’s show of “great disrespect” toward China, instead of saying that it was misbehaving “toward the US”.

After Xi’s affirmations that China was not trying to “reinvent the wheel”, Trump has been leaning on China more now in an effort to break the stalemate, as Beijing also has high stakes in maintaining regional security, the trigger-happy North Korea being situated in China’s back yard. As Trump said after their last meeting, “We don’t know whether or not they’re able to do that, but I have absolute confidence that he [Xi] will be trying very, very hard.”

Notwithstanding the Sino-US interaction, Pyongyang’s missile tests do perturb Washington, and the US has successfully tested an interceptor missile launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California that  deflected an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) fired by the US from the Marshall Islands. Further improvements may be required, though, as the US military has been testing such systems since 1999 with only a 50% success rate. The recent interception was planned and such a situation could have different results in real-time conditions.

Over the past few weeks, the USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald Reagan have been stationed in the Pacific Ocean and a large display of naval power was carried out alongside Japanese forces in waters near the Korean Peninsula recently. In retaliation, the most recent land-to-ship missiles fired by North Korea  symbolically conveyed its ability to target warships.

Obviously all this is a test of nerves and US patience is running out, but Defense Secretary James Mattis recently pointed out that any conflict “would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes” and could be “catastrophic” if not resolved diplomatically. He went on to say, “If this goes to a military solution, it is going to be tragic on an unbelievable scale.”

Meanwhile in South Korea, four additional launchers for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system were installed without informing the newly elected President Moon Jae-in, who ordered an investigation over the deployment. After top-security meetings in Seoul to mull the issue, further deployments of the THAAD system were temporarily halted until the results of a lengthy environmental assessment came in, though this would not affect the two launchers already in operation. In what could be a further complication, this may be a signal that South Korea is slipping away from US influence as Seoul seeks better terms with Pyongyang and Beijing.

For its part, North Korea probably believes it is the US that is pushing the Korean Peninsula to the brink of nuclear war, especially after US Air Force B-1 bomber sorties were carried out from Guam in South Korea. Pyongyang announced that “a nuclear-bomb-dropping drill against major objects” in its territory was carried out. Confirming the presence of US bombers, Lieutenant-Colonel Lori Hodge said this “provides assurances to our allies and strengthens security and stability”.

In the midst of all the mayhem, the Chinese stance is calm and the focus remains on dialogue. Recently while on a visit to Berlin, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told the media that the parties must get “back to the negotiating table” and that China opposed all types of nuclear and missile tests by North Korea.

While Pyongyang’s missile tests are in contravention of United Nations Security Council resolutions, Beijing has also called on the US to cease its military exercises in the Korean Peninsula. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement: “The situation on the Korean Peninsula is complex and sensitive, and we hope all relevant sides maintain calm and exercise restraint, ease the tense situation as soon as possible and put the issue back on to the correct track of peaceful dialogue.”

Negotiating with China on new UN sanctions, the US also plans to present a draft resolution at the Security Council soon. It has blacklisted nine companies as well as two Russian firms for supporting North Korea’s weapons program. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley had called for stiffening sanctions against North Korea, while adding: “We have to turn around and tell the entire international community: You either support North Korea or you support us.”

For now though, the US is still hopeful that any solution to the North Korean crisis will be due to Chinese influence, which would lead to the halting of Pyongyang’s nuclear program altogether. However, it may be unrealistic to expect a solution without dialogue, as defusing the situation is only possible if the posturing between North Korea and the US ends. Until then, the present volatile situation could spin out of control at any moment.

Foreign Affairs Journalist, Lawyer and geopolitical analyst. Writing about modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia. Bylines in Al-Monitor, The Diplomat, South China Morning Post and Asia Research Institute's Asia Dialogue Twitter @sabena_siddiqi