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Opinion

Opinion: North Korea is testing missiles - and US limits

Pyongyang is trying to improve its negotiating position while testing the new US government. And competition between the US and China means the isolated country doesn't have much to fear, says DW's Alexander Freund.

It has become something of a yearly ritual - North Korea conducts provocative military tests, the indoctrinated population celebrates and neighbors South Korea and Japan protest heavily. Then they call the UN Security Council together with the US, and this is followed by condemnation from the international community - including reluctant criticism from China. Finally, new sanctions will be imposed.

But wait a moment - new sanctions? How may I ask should the already drastic sanctions applied to this already completely isolated country be tightened any further? Of course, nothing will come out of it, and North Korea knows this, but that is how the ritual goes and Pyongyang must be punished somehow.

With this logic in mind, Pyongyang is using this missile as a "test balloon." Now let's see how the new US government reacts to the provocation. Even considering US President Trump's well-known unpredictability, he does not want to risk escalating the conflict - and why would he?

Freund Alexander Kommentarbild App

DW's Alexander Freund

Trump can use the missile test as an occasion to assure Japan and South Korea that the US will assist them in any way, while at the same time demanding that the nervous neighbors take more responsibility for their own defense. In other words, the US-produced missile defense system THAAD will remain stationed in South Korea and the gradual softening of Japan's pacifist constitution by Abe's conservative government will be tolerated.

And Prime Minister Abe's recent visit to Washington gave him and President Trump a perfect opportunity to demonstrate to the media their commitment to standing shoulder-to-shoulder as partners. And what can be done about the threat from North Korea? Obviously, the only answer is a military buildup.

North Korea using US-China competition

In Trump's eyes, China is also guilty. North Korea's protector is acting increasingly more aggressive in the region, but at the same time, does not apply its influence over its communist sister state - and for a good reason. Beijing indeed fears the collapse of North Korea, which would not only result in millions of refugees at the border, but also an uncomfortably close US presence.

North Korea is therefore taking advantage of the moment. It understands the strategic competition between Washington and Beijing. And Trump is intentionally increasing the tension with his own provocations like alluding to trade wars, questioning the "one China" policy or criticizing China's access to the South China Sea.

The North Korean tactic behind this latest test is obvious and promising as Pyongyang knows it will only be accepted as a negotiating partner from a position of strength. Without weapons of mass destruction, a collapse similar to Gaddafi in Libya or Saddam Hussein in Iraq is to be expected. But a state like Iran, which entertains a nuclear program and appears to be a serious power, can potentially expect to negotiate a deal that is attractive for all sides.

Rituals are better than acting unilaterally

How effective North Korea's weapon systems really are and if they actually posses atomic weapons is beside the point. More important is the message - "we are dangerous, so take us seriously and then we can reach an agreement." But the US has yet to take them up on this deal. So far, Washington does not want to directly negotiate with Pyongyang and prefers a multi-party solution - a resumption of the six-party talks.

And this is the way it should stay - maintaining the ritual rather than going it alone. The problem is that the ritual right now is a diplomatic minefield. But even Trump will recognize that many issues can only be solved together with China. A promising solution for North Korea is only possible if trustworthy cooperation between Washington and Beijing is also made possible. And until then, Pyongyang will be testing missiles and looking for attention.

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