The last few weeks have featured three unsuccessful North Korean missile launches: two intermediate-range ballistic missiles that failed to launch on April 28, and a third that exploded a few seconds after takeoff on April 15. On April 24, however, the regime claimed to successfully test a submarine-launched ballistic missile that flew the desired distance and maintained mechanical integrity. Though unconfirmed, this test is yet another milestone for a regime persistently seeking a deterrent and credible prestige.
Nuclear demonstrations are categorically used by Kim Jong-un to drum up international attention and domestic support prior to significant events, such as anniversaries or even his birthday. Bear in mind that North Korea has announced the seventh congress of the ruling Workers’ Party this week; it will be the first such conventional since Kim Il-sung anointed Kim Jong-il as heir apparent in 1980. The third Kim likely hopes to use recent missile activity, and a rumored fifth nuclear test, as an attempt to shore up his image and demonstrate military power in advance of the celebration of his authority.
And how has the international community responded? As usual: with sanctions. UN Security Council Resolution 2270, adopted on March 2, 2016, has been hailed as the harshest round of sanctions yet in response to North Korean nuclear activity.
Notably, this resolution was drafted jointly between the United States and China. Often viewed as essential to enforcing UN-imposed sanctions, Chinese willingness to propose and support these sanctions suggests a change in policy, or at least, a commitment to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula that was put on full display at the recent Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C.
Equally important, how has the United States responded? After the latest North Korean nuclear and rocket tests, the United States warned it would consider alternative options if North Korean tests persisted. In a CBS interview this week, President Obama went so far as to say that the United States is “positioning [its] missile defense systems” and “setting up a shield” to protect itself and its allies against North Korean threats.
Could this mean deploying THAAD to South Korea? Could it mean increased partnership with Japan and expansion of its Aegis-equipped destroyer fleet? Or could it even mean permanent forward basing of the Sea-Based X-Band Radar platform? How exactly this will play out is unsure. We can, however, be sure that just as nuclear-related technology can be dual-use, so too can policy responses.
Ahead of a visit by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea, China tested the developmental DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile. The DF-41 is roughly on par with modern missiles operated by the United States and Russia in terms of speed, range, and warhead capacity.
Much as the NATO missile shield was publicly described as a defense against Iranian threats yet simultaneously countered Russian capabilities, a U.S. missile shield in the Pacific could serve to protect against North Korean threats and bolster its allies’ defenses against a relatively stronger China.
As Asian nations contend with each other over ownership of, or access to, the East and South China Seas, the United States has walked a fine line between rebuking Chinese actions from afar and fully inserting itself into the debate. It isn’t too far a stretch of the imagination to consider that North Korean provocations could be the foundation of a parallel dual-use policy.
Dean Ensley is currently a technical/proposal writer at NES Associates. He graduated from The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs in 2015 with an MA in security policy studies, specializing in defense analysis as well as science and military technology in Asia. He previously graduated from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Affairs in 2013 with a BSFS in international politics, specializing in international security, with a concentration in European Studies.
The views expressed above are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Project on Nuclear Issues, the U.S. government or any of its agencies.