In September, I wrote about my fears that North Korea would do something to attract attention and provoke the international community before the end of the year, and outlined a few reasons for why such act may be more dangerous than previous provocations.
Unfortunately my analysis regarding North Korea’s desire to make a statement during 2012 seems to have been correct – on 1 December 2012 North Korea announced that it is planning a missile launch for the period surrounding the South Korea presidential election. It seems likely at this stage that DPRK will go ahead with the launch, perhaps as early as Monday 10 December, with weather as the main delaying factor.
Since then, the usual efforts have been made to forestall the event itself, and some less usual ones to prepare for it. NATO, the US and others have called for North Korea to halt the launch, the US PACOM has moved two warships closer to the peninsula for monitoring and missile defence, and Japan has reportedly authorised surface to air missiles for interception in the (rather unlikely, according to the trajectory coordinates provided by Pyongyang) event that it looks like the missile is heading towards Japanese territory.
South Korea’s stance is normal and expected. On the other hand – though I admit I’m not certain of this – I don’t believe that for the April launch the US specifically talked about moving ships with “ballistic missile defence capabilities” into the area. Official PACOM news releases don’t actually mention the missile defence or intercept angle (just referring to “monitoring“, but I would think that China would be rather sensitive to the US demonstrating its missile defence capabilities in that way.
The uncertainty now becomes around whether the launch occurs in such a way to invoke a stronger than normal response from Japan, South Korea or the US. With China-DPRK relations themselves at an uncertain stage with a new Chinese leadership and Kim Jong Un’s reported desire for greater independence, the China-Japan relationship in trouble and the timing of the South Korean election, there are many more variables for the important players to keep track of and therefore a more fragile regional balance to maintain. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.
Image from the excellent 38 North blog: http://38north.org/2012/12/sohae120612/