International efforts to limit North Korea’s ability to project military power have failed as this weekend the state launched an object into orbit. Options must now be realized as actionable plans in order to seriously combat new threats posed by North Korea. The United States and South Korea have discussed the deployment of missile defense systems to combat this threat, which may further escalate the situation on the Korean peninsula.
Implications of a North Korean Missile in Orbit
The rocket took nine minutes and 46 seconds to enter orbit after liftoff, according to North Korea’s state news agency KCNA. This action directly violates UNSC sanctions against North Korean space launch. While the uncontrolled trajectory of this satellite poses no threat to the U.S. or its allies according to a senior defense official, the event indicates an intention to develop long-range missile technology.
The launch of this satellite directly threatened South Korea and Japan as the trajectory of the rocket entered each state’s airspace. Japan’s military was recently put on alert to shoot down any threatening rocket and South Korea’s threat level was heightened even further than before. This action caused both states to react with swift condemnation and a strong call to action for their own defense.
The larger threat of this action is the potential of a long range North Korean nuclear delivery system ready to launch against a global target. This particular satellite poses no such threat because the technology required for this vehicle to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere has not been tested for long-range missiles. The success of this launch indicates a future threat.
Defense Against a Long-Range Missile
The satellite launch is widely considered to be indicative of a plan to launch a long-range ballistic missile. With this launch, North Korea has accomplished a significant test in two areas: entering an object into orbit and utilizing long-range rocket technology.
Washington and Seoul have taken a substantive step to address recent North Korean actions by formalizing discussions over deploying an advanced missile shield to South Korea. The system that is being discussed is the Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense platform (THAAD) that would be operated by U.S. forces.
China fears deployment of THAAD because it believes it would limit China’s ability to project military power over the Korean peninsula. While U.S. Forces Korea has stated that THAAD would be used specifically to combat the North Korean threat, this offers little assurance to China.
Timing of Satellite Launch
China is widely regarded as the best link between the international community and North Korea. In the past six years China has had six summit meetings with South Korea and none with North Korea. North Korea has reportedly been seeking a summit with China, and may be acting out in order to demonstrate its own importance and warrant China’s attention.
The timing of the event, after North Korea claimed to test a hydrogen bomb and before the Super Bowl, indicates that North Korea wants to maximize on international media attention. The international community must regain control not only of the narrative, but also of the situation on the Korea peninsula.
Taking Action to Advert the Growing North Korean Threat
The international community responded with overwhelming condemnation of these actions. The UNSC has pledged new sanctions, and Secretary of State John Kerry called it a “flagrant violation” and warned of further measures to prevent future North Korean activities. North Korea has also reactivated the Yongbyon nuclear enrichment facility, demonstrating that this situation is only escalating further.
China is likely the best actor to de-escalate the situation on the Korean peninsula. The combination of North Korea’s pursuit of advanced missile technology with the deployment of THAAD by the U.S. and South Korea creates a highly volatile situation right on China’s border. Persuading China to engage with North Korea to stabilize the border and keep the state out of conflict can reduce the high threat level.
Simultaneously, the United States must take the lead in actions that defend its Asian allies, in particular South Korea and Japan. Discussions regarding the deployment of THAAD is one way to not only assure allies of their safety, but also to demonstrate the commitment of the United States to the defense of these allies to North Korea. An additional focus on the long-discussed military rebalance toward Asia can also make this commitment evident. This can stabilize the Korean peninsula by asserting U.S. military strength in defense of allies, which may cause North Korea to pause.