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Pyongyang’s third failed missile test: what now?

By Liang Nah - posted Tuesday, 18 April 2017


On Sunday the 16th of April, North Korea conducted an unsuccessful missile test near its port city of Sinpo. According to the U.S. Pacific Command, the medium range missile blew up almost immediately upon launch and its exact model is still as yet unknown. This is Pyongyang's third unsuccessful missile test in 2017, the previous two taking place on 5th April and in late March.

Schadenfreude at Pyongyang's setbacks is ill-advised

While naysayers targeting the DPRK might derive schadenfreude (satisfaction at the misfortune of others) from North Korea's missile failures and the cheer the apparent embarrassment inflicted upon the North's leadership from having their rocket aggrandisement fall flat on its face, such gloating is ill-advised. This is because Pyongyang learns technical lessons from both its successes and failures, and might well decide to test even more missiles or detonate a nuclear device in the very near future, in order to save face vis-à-vis an international audience, as well as salvage a domestic propaganda victory.

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Regarding technical learning, each missile or nuclear test provides valuable data to the DPRK's scientists and technicians, enabling them to rectify hardware deficiencies and improve the reliability or efficacy of future missile and warhead prototypes. Hence, the fact that Kim Jong-un is able to marshal the resources required to sustain the nuclear and missile programme is fundamentally a baseline victory regardless of any test outcomes.

Next, it can be argued that governing North Korea involves a fair amount of political theatre, both to deter foreign adversaries as well as bolster domestic morale and confidence in national sustainability. Since the most recent missile test was conducted one day after the 105th birth anniversary of the North's founding leader, Kim Il-sung and is quite probably a birthday tribute to the late Kim, such an occasion requires a successful technological demonstration to fulfil external and internal propaganda imperatives. Consequently, this missile failure is very likely to spur more hasty tests in the days or weeks ahead in the hope that at least one of them can be declared a success. Indeed, there is a historical precedent for this as the DPRK tested two Hwasong-10 Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles within a single day on 22 June 2016, with only the second missile being an unmitigated success. Furthermore, if subsequent missile tests do not yield the required success for politico-nationalistic showboating, the Kim regime might well order its sixth nuclear test, which is definitely more destabilising.

What next in the coming days?

Much has been said about how tensions in the region have spiked as the Trump administration has declared that the strategy of "strategic patience" towards the North will be discontinued in favour of more aggressive and punitive measures to enforce the denuclearisation of the DPRK, up to and including the employment of military force. This has been underscored by the deployment of a carrier battle group lead by the USS Carl Vinson to the region. In return, Pyongyang has predictably responded with its vitriolic rhetoric, declaring that North Korea is "ready for war" with the United States.

In such a volatile environment, it is perhaps commendable that President Trump has wisely chosen to withhold his comments about the failed 16th April missile test. Any taunting official statements or even tweets would have poured salt on Pyongyang's proverbial wounds and most certainly exacerbated regional tensions. However, any restraint on Washington's part does not obviate Kim Jong-un's need to deliver a demonstration of technological achievement and this makes a follow-up missile test almost unavoidable.

With this in mind, and for the sake of regional conflict management, it might be prudent for Trump to borrow a leaf from former President Obama's playbook and refrain from taking military action against the DPRK in case of a successful future missile test, unless U.S. vessels or bases were directly threatened. Tightening non-military punitive measures or sanctions could then be implemented on a multi-lateral basis in conjunction with allied states and Chinese cooperation. For instance, the Brussels based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) has already cut off all North Korean banks from its services while Beijing has already halted all coal imports from the DPRK for 2017. Inasmuch as effective sanctions take time for their coercive impact to be truly felt by Pyongyang's ruling class, they are preferable to the rapid escalation to armed conflict if either the Kim regime or Trump administration should miscalculate and launch a pre-emptive strike.

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Lastly, in the event that the next missile test fails and/or Kim decides to authorise the DPRK's 6th nuclear test, it is worth noting that Trump has publicly committed U.S. policy towards a more muscular and aggressive approach to dealing with Pyongyang's nuclear proliferation. If he does not follow through on his tough talk of unilaterally solving the North Korean problem, whether by military or other methods, if Beijing "does not decide to help", this could significantly undermine Washington's regional credibility. Accordingly, the prospects for peace and stability in Northeast Asia appear far more precarious than they were during the DPRK's previous 5 nuclear tests. It is hoped that Pyongyang, the U.S. and Beijing exercise utmost caution in their decisions over the next few days or even weeks.

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About the Author

Liang Tuang Nah is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

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