It's been a busy week for missile activity in and around North Korea. On Monday local time, the Hermit Kingdom test-launched a scud missile that crash-landed in Japanese water, leading that country's prime minister, Shinzō Abe, to promise "concrete action with the United States" in response. A little over a day later, the Pentagon announced the US had intercepted a fake intercontinental ballistic missile with a defensive projectile launched from California—a step toward a system that theoretically could help avert catastrophe in the future. Also on Tuesday, South Korean president Moon Jae-In announced that the US brought four more Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile launchers into his country than he expected—and that he was launching an investigation into why he and his own military (not to mention his most crucial ally) weren't on the same page.
It's easy to look at all these headlines and just conclude: "Korea + Missiles = Impending WWIII." Ever since President Trump promised in April that the North Korea problem "will be taken care of," it has seemed increasingly plausible that something terrible might happen in one of the world's more volatile regions. But these were really three developments in three distinct trends: North Korea's 2017 missile test bonanza, the lack of a reliable American defensive shield against ICBMs targeting the United States, and South Korea's apprehension about hosting the THAAD system—something that turns local towns into potential North Korean targets, but may have no tangible benefit for the South Korean people.
To help parse these developments, I got in touch with Rodger Baker, who leads Asia Pacific research at the military think tank Stratfor. He put all this news in perspective, beginning with the fact that—taken in a vacuum—nothing that has happened so far this week is necessarily a big deal. Then again, taken as a whole, the implications could be pretty scary.
VICE: OK, broad strokes, what was North Korea up to with this latest missile test?
Rodger Baker: The North Korean test appears to have been aimed at improving their MaRV [Maneuverable Reentry Vehicle—basically a guided warhead] capability, something they have been working on all year. It is one of several important technological hurdles they still need to overcome to demonstrate their long-range ballistic missile capability, but each small step is a step in that direction.
And the US interception of a fake ICBM—what happened there?
The US hit was another example of incremental improvements in a system that has yet to be tested in earnest. So far the track record is not all that stellar, but each move toward increased effectiveness, coupled with layered missile defense, does give the United States slightly more confidence in being able to counter a stray imperfect North Korean missile. Still a lot of testing to go, though.
And what's with South Korea's president being so mad about the extra THAAD missile launchers in his country all of a sudden? Shouldn't he be into that?
In Seoul, Moon's professed anger at not being briefed on the total number of launchers in each THAAD battery may be a way for him to demonstrate to his constituents that he is still paying attention to the issue, while also finding some way to perhaps move to restrict or reduce the THAAD without directly confronting the United States. It is a piece of the very difficult balance he must walk between the United States, China, his own constituents and the very real security of South Korea.
Sounds like you're saying it's a political maneuver. How do the Korean people read this as political news?
THAAD is being characterized as a manipulation by the USA and the previous South Korean government—that they snuck in THAAD without proper discussions in parliament, without proper environmental tests, basically snuck it in quickly to leave it as a fait accompli for the new [more liberal] government. That plays into the sense in South Korea that the conservative factions don't listen to the people, are too tied to what the US wants, and are bent on driving Korea toward conflict. Politically, this characterization by Moon may play well.
VICE News Tonight was in North Korea during a recent missile test:
Are South Korea's critics of US policy right
? Does any of this mean conflict is imminent?
It is, perhaps, the way in which the number of incidents are beginning to converge, to increase in frequency, that may be drawing us nearer to a conflict in Korea.
So what's next for the US as far as missile defense?
Missile Defense must be 100 percent perfect to be a true deterrent, or give complete confidence to take action while fearing little response. The US is far from that moment.
What challenges are still ahead for North Korea if the US is closing in on a missile defense system?
It does emphasize the need to do more than show they can launch a missile. They must show guidance, perhaps play around with multiple warheads, or simply build a large number of missiles to overwhelm the defense system—think of the test earlier this year of several simultaneous missile launches. From Pyongyang's perspective, this is a race for regime survival. If the North Koreans believe the plot to assassinate Kim that they have discussed all month, then there is even more pressure to accelerate the program.
And in your opinion, is the US really considering war?
The United States is not backing down on the military threat, and is even deploying another aircraft carrier to the region. There is still a lot to overcome from Japan and South Korea, not to mention China, before the US decides to act militarily. But if Washington believes that the North regime is weak, that there is rising opposition to Kim Jong-Un—based on recent defections—then perhaps they may shift their calculation of the cost of military intervention.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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