North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un celebrates the second test-fire of intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 in this undated picture provided by KCNA in Pyongyang on July 29, 2017. Photo: Reuters/via KCNA

At 5:58am local time Tuesday, North Korea launched an IRBM from the Sunan area near the capital of Pyongyang. It travelled for about 14 minutes in a northeasterly direction, reached an altitude of 550km, neatly squeezed between the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido and the main island of Honshu, overflew Cape Erimo, and after 2700km separated into three parts and plunged into the Pacific Ocean 1,180km east of the cape.

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe told reporters, “A missile passing over Japan is an unprecedented, grave and serious threat” and got on the phone with Donald Trump. They spoke for 40 minutes. Trump said, “Threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world. All options are on the table.”

Reportedly, Abe and Trump agreed that the latest North Korean launch made it clear that now is not the right time for dialogue and that increased pressure is necessary.

And that’s where things now stand.

The Abe and Trump comments were predictable and tell us nothing. The missile launch and flight beg some obvious questions. Here are two:

  1. The missile flight was tracked in detail from launch to disintegration. The missile’s (presumably a Hwasong-12) flight characteristics are well known. And yet, neither the US nor Japan made any effort to intercept it. Why?

The answer, unhappily, is quite straightforward: Nearly 35 years after the launch of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, neither the US nor Japan have a proven capability of destroying an IRBM in flight. And, of course, if an attempt to shoot it down failed, such evidence of failure and incompetence would prove a policy disaster. So, better not risk it. As David Goldman recently wrote in these pages, competent missile defense is a cornerstone of military strategy; failure to develop it is criminal negligence.

  1. After threatening to launch missiles toward the US territory of Guam, what prompted Kim to shoot one across northern Japan?

The guy may be weird; but he’s shrewd. When China recently, against the expectations of many, voted with the US in the UN Security Council to impose harsher sanctions on North Korea, Kim and/or his close advisors will have realized that for the first time perhaps on the long and twisting road of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles development, threats and counter-threats, sanctions, deals and broken agreements, the Kim regime faced a truly existential threat: a China no longer prepared to underwrite its survival at all cost. How best to undermine an emerging understanding between the US and China on the Koreas?

Launch a tangible, credible threat against Japan. Prompt a Japan that has long neglected its own defenses to urgently seek shelter under the provisions of the US-Japan security treaty and demand US military reinforcements in Northeast Asia. Prompt the US to accede to such demands and thus drive a new wedge between the US and China.

Far fetched? Not to anyone familiar with the dynamics of security policy and deep seated suspicions in the China – Koreas – Japan triangle and US entanglements.

To anyone who cares, a ready taste of that was on display earlier this year when China – quite unofficially of course – sanctioned South Korea’s Lotte conglomerate’s operations in China when it agreed to swap land with the South Korean government for deployment of US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) launchers and the powerful X-band AN/TPY-2 phased array radar associated with the batteries. Any US-Japanese-South Korean military systems in the region may well be intended to counter a North Korean threat and that threat alone; but try to convince China of that!

Kim perceives his security and very existence threatened by a US – China rapprochement; driving the US and Japan into a firmer embrace could prove a good splinter factor.

Conversely, any understanding by the Trump administration that that is so; any appreciation – indeed, an openly admitted one as by Stephen Bannon when he left the White House – that the North Korea problem has no military solution defines the most significant step forward, not some hackneyed talk of “all options on the table” and “not the right time for dialogue.”

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