North Korea's rapid advancement in mastering missile technologies has heightened the risk of a vicious conflagration on the Korean Peninsula. A moratorium on new tests could help to diminish that risk, says Martin Fritz.
As recently as in January this year, US President Donald Trump tweeted that North Korea would never be allowed to acquire an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability. But just six months later, it has already happened. The latest North Korean missile, fired on Tuesday, apparently had a range of about 8,000 kilometers and could carry one nuclear warhead.
With the confirmation that the rocket was in fact an ICBM, North Korea gained entry into an exclusive club of powers that could launch missiles capable of reaching American soil.
Militarily speaking, the new North Korean missile is of little significance. It uses a liquid propellant and flies so slowly that it can be easily knocked out by an anti-missile defense system. Doubts also abound about its reliability and precision.
North Korean scientists definitely need a lot more time to bring about the improvements needed to turn it into a dependable weapon for their leader Kim Jong Un.
Kim's regime unassailable
For Kim, the main purpose of these long-range missiles is their deterrent potential. His reclusive regime in Pyongyang has now effectively become unassailable, as it now possesses the capability to launch atomic weapons at the US and cause incalculable consequences.
This ability strengthens Kim's hand in any negotiations with the outside world and allows him to pursue his political goals such as concluding a peace agreement and the lifting of the UN-imposed sanctions on his country.
It appears paradoxical, but the advancement of North Korea's missile capabilities has shaken the stalemate that had long characterized the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
Until the latest test, the North's weapons had only threatened its neighbors South Korea and Japan.
The US offered the two countries protection by keeping them under its nuclear umbrella, but otherwise Washington played a spectator role watching from afar the tensions and developments in the region.
Successive American administrations have responded to North Korean provocations in a knee-jerk and stereotypical manner. But that won't work any longer as the US itself can now become the target of Pyongyang's military wrath.
More pressure on China
At the moment it looks as if there will be a repeat of the usual cycle of events that occur every time North Korea conducts a test. The US says it wants to tighten international sanctions and prod countries like China and others for more support to rein in Pyongyang.
Washington might also increase direct pressure on Beijing in a bid to convince the Chinese leadership to totally abandon the North Korean regime.
But when one looks at Trump's tweets on North Korea, one gets the impression that he might be short on patience to wait for this isolation strategy to work and produce concrete results.
As Trump's domestic reforms agenda remains stuck, he might be tempted to score points on the foreign policy arena. One option would be to authorize airstrikes against military targets in North Korea.
But with that tactic, the US would risk a dangerous escalation where the North retaliates by, for example, attacking the South Korean capital Seoul, a vibrant metropolis that's home to millions of people. South Korea and Japan therefore have to make it clear to the US leader that this strategy is too risky.
Moratorium more attractive
Compared to the military option, the proposal for a moratorium put forward by Russia and China appears more attractive. A suspension of nuclear and missile tests by North Korea in exchange for a halt to joint military drills by the US and South Korea would first reduce the tensions and decelerate the pace at which the North is developing its weapons technologies.
The pause should then be utilized by the various parties to the conflict to find ways to get back to the negotiating table.
But it's not possible to turn the clock backward. North Korea is not going to give up its status as a nuclear weapons state. But the talks could focus on persuading North Korea to freeze its weapons development programs in return for an easing of the international sanctions and pledges for increased economic cooperation.
This path of constructive de-escalation is clearly preferable to a second Korean War.
Would you like to add a comment below?
The thread will remain open for 24 hours after publication.