North Korea’s missiles: peepholes into alien territory

It is here in South Korea where you will find the most prevalent sense of bitterness and anger towards the belligerent communist state.

The controversy that surrounded the highly secretive launch of another round of bellicose missile tests by North Korea is yet another potent reminder of the potential for conflict that emanates from inside the atavistic instincts of the last cold-warrior nation.

The latest test – which Pyongyang claimed was a three-stage rocket bid to send an observational satellite into space – was widely condemned for blatantly violating UN Security Council resolutions, which ban North Korea from using nuclear and missile technology that can be utilized in the firing of long-range rockets.

Although the eventual launch did nothing to ease the internal situation for its famine-stricken people, North Korea’s latest adventure makes those, who like me, live and reside in the other half of the world’s only physically divided country, jittery about the future prospects for war and peace.

And what really makes one discern an algorithm that something explosive could break out at any time, is the fact that in the absence of a peace treaty only the longest truce in modern history stands between these mortal enemies and the resumption of all-out war.

A never-ending threat?

Events involving North Korea over the last few years have certainly given rise to both regional and international apprehension, but of course it is here in South Korea where you will find the most prevalent sense of bitterness and anger towards the belligerent communist state.

This is after all the epicentre of a peninsula whose two conflicting ideologies are separated by a crude borderland that happens to be the most heavily fortified of its kind on earth. In the last few years we’ve witnessed sporadic cross-border fire, torpedos sinking ships, nuclear weapons testing and even threats by the north to turn its southern neighbour into ‘rats ashes’.

Things could not have been helped by the revelation from a senior South Korean official in the last few weeks to the effect that Pyongyang’s ability to mount a nuclear device on a ballistic weapon would be cause for an existential threat to his country.

South Korea, for all its remarkable economic ascent, could not be passing through a more period of greater tension.

Expanding deterrent or ploy for aid?

Considering that Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile abilities are well documented, it’s perhaps wise to say that concerned nations should not have cause for immediate worry.  According to Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato institute, North Korea’s latest act of defiance has a multitude of motives. These include reclaiming its reputation foiled by a failed rocket launch in April, the pumping up of nationalist feelings, enhancing the credentials of ‘Great Successor’ Kim Jong-un, and pressure on Washington to offer a deal.

The Washington angle seems a highly plausible one.  North Korea has a history of resorting to ugly brinkmanship at times of dire internal need and Washington has a history of providing food and other energy-related aid to the country on the condition that it sign a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear testing and enrichment activities. Considering the US suspended the deal earlier this year, citing North Korean violations, the significance of this latest act of defiance should surely be seen through this prism.

North Korea, one of the poorest countries on earth and virtually orphaned since the collapse of its Soviet benefactor in the 1990’s, is in no position to risk an all-out major confrontation – especially when China, its only friend, was said to have quietly been persuading it to abandon its plans for the rocket launch.

Dead-end for united Korea?

But if there’s a clear victim from North Korea’s latest actions, that victim is the unification of the two fraternal Koreas – a notion that has been gathering momentum in the last decade. 

The most active debate now under way must be on how to find the most effective and rational way of dealing with Pyongyang’s occasional tantrums, tantrums that render a deathblow to long-held dreams of a united peninsula.

Yet it wouldn’t be wholly incorrect to suggest that everything we can analyze from their maverick behaviour over the last few years, should not be deemed as dramatic as it at first appears. Because, despite the occasional fire and myriad shades of moods and temperaments that appear to define them, making an accurate assessment of their nuclear and missile trajectories can never rule out the eventuality that it is only a barely disguised begging cry for more aid and assistance, something this nearly-starving nation badly needs.

In the end, rocket launch or no rocket launch, the maintenance of a strong military posture will no doubt one day succumb to the dividends of peace in a people that yearn so heavily for it.

About the author

Mohammad I. Aslam is a Ph.D candidate in Political Science at the Department of Middle -East & Mediterranean Studies, King's College London. He currently lives and works in Busan city, South Korea.