North Korea triggers a U.S. missile defense showdown among major powers

Special to

DonKirk3By Donald Kirk,

North Korean rocket launches and nuclear tests risk getting boring.

The pattern is familiar: expressions of outrage, loud condemnation ― then nothing. Has the latest one-two punch of nuclear test and rocket launch changed a thing? The easy answer is not really ― but think again. The lines of confrontation are deepening.

On one side, China and Russia are lined up with North Korea in opposing tough sanctions that might persuade Kim Jong-Un to think twice. Sure, neither seems happy about North Korea’s challenge to their shared domination of Northeast Asia, but neither is going to stop the young ruler from doing whatever he wants.

The standoff now is deepened by the sales talks that American commanders, diplomats and technical experts have been giving the South Koreans about Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). No sooner was word out that North Korea had launched its latest rocket than U.S. generals were selling reluctant South Korean defense chiefs on the need for THAAD, which will cost billions of dollars paid to American defense firms.

South Korea's deployment of the U.S. THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) would be a problem for Russia and China. / Missile Defense Agency
South Korea’s deployment of the U.S. THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) would be a problem for Russia and China. / Missile Defense Agency

The South Koreans have been arguing, why spend all that dough when the North Koreans aren’t at all likely to fire stuff 100 miles above the Earth when they can zap us with the short- and mid-range missiles and artillery that they’ve been making for years, for themselves and for export to such clients as Iran and Syria?

The North Koreans, though, did a great job of demolishing that argument by firing their rocket last Sunday, just as everyone in the South was getting into the Lunar New Year holiday. News reports had the rocket soaring high above Jeju before zooming southward over Okinawa, shedding its first and second stages before getting something into space. Okay, the satellite may not have been a success, according to reports of its “tumbling” out of orbit, but that’s not the point. The North Koreans, by all reports, were testing the technology for firing a rocket capable of carrying a miniaturized warhead to California.

The Americans must be overjoyed. They could not have asked for a better display of North Korean prowess at high-altitude weaponry. How can the South not want THAAD, how can South Korean defense officials not be begging for it, they’re asking, when the North has amply demonstrated that high-altitude warfare, Star Wars-style, might turn into reality?

That’s a pretty persuasive argument, but then we have the problem of China going ballistic, figuratively, at the mere mention of THAAD. The Chinese say it’s aimed at them as much as North Korea, and they don’t at all like the U.S. setting up THAAD batteries so close to their shores. The Americans will keep assuring the Chinese: No, no, we’re not thinking of firing at you. But you never know which way the wind will blow as military confrontation deepens in Northeast Asia.

In fact, the longer China delays on doing anything to stop Kim Jong-Un in his tracks, the greater the sense that the Chinese aren’t that worried about his nuclear and missile programs. Could China view all that as a defense against the U.S. and Japan? No one forgets the Chinese saved North Korea from defeat in the Korean War and remain North Korea’s only friend and ally.

The North Koreans may squirm, but they know where their fuel and half their food is coming from. So far, Chinese leaders and diplomats don’t seem to have asked: If you have enough money to build nuclear warheads and missiles, why can’t you buy your own food and fuel?

Then there are the Russians. They don’t condone North Korea’s program either, but they export natural gas to the North and dream of a railroad running to Busan, along the east coast of South Korea, then up through North Korea ― and across Russia’s 10-mile border with North Korea along the Tumen River before it empties into the sea.

The Russians are enthusiastic proponents of the Rason Special Economic Zone a few miles into North Korea, seeing traffic to and from the zone as a precursor of much bigger trade across Siberia to Europe. Just as they played a secondary but significant role in the Korean War, providing aerial support and heavy arms, so they remain a de facto ally of the North despite the breakup of the old Soviet empire.

All of which means the powers are aligning against one another, with the U.S. committed to both South Korea and Japan, the great rear base area in the Korean War. The longer China and Russia fail to curb Kim Jong-Un’s ambitions, the higher the risk of blundering into a regional war that would make the original Korean War look like a minor conflict rather than a conflagration that killed 4 million people.

Donald Kirk has been covering the military and diplomatic standoff on the Korean Peninsula for decades. He’s at [email protected].