Yesterday, the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit wrapped up in the Hague. This conference brought together leaders from 53 countries to talk about securing loose nukes, play a “war game” in which they responded to a fake dirty bomb attack, and make progress on locking down nuclear material.
But the biggest news was that Barack Obama corralled South Korean President Park Geun Hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and hosted the first-ever formal talks between the two leaders. Japan and Korea have some deep-seated historical beef and a few modern-day territorial issues, and the US would much prefer to have its two main allies in Asia on good terms with each other. By no means did Japan and South Korea hug it out, but the talks were considered a success overall; the US was able to reaffirm its commitment to the region (lest any squirrelly despots get any post-Crimea ideas about violating borders in Asia), and everyone was able to agree that it would be terrific if North Korea would chill out with the goddamned nukes and missiles.
Which was a huge coincidence, because at the exact time the three leaders were meeting, North Korea just so happened to launch a pair of medium-range Rodong-1 ballistic missiles.
The Rodong-1 used be more hilariously named the “No-Dong 1,” until North Korea got dial-up internet access and realized that attempting to portray military might by aggressively brandishing the nation’s “No-Dong” wasn't really working. The Rodong-1, which may someday carry nuclear warheads if North Korea can manufacture more sophisticated nukes, has a theoretical range of more than 600 miles. For Wednesday’s launch, the missiles flew more than 400, across South Korea, before landing in the Sea of Japan. The launch not only startled nearby fish, but could have also surprised some fishing boats, as North Korea neglected to provide the customary advance maritime warning to boaters.
While the meeting between North Korea’s three main foes was the event Pyongyang was marking, it wasn't the only reason the North Koreans issued a road-mobile, liquid-fueled ballistic communique. Spring is when large-scale war games and military exercises take place in both Koreas (uptown and downtown). The US even teams up with South Korea for the festivities; last year, the US Air Force flew a few B-2 bombers over South Korean training ranges in a simulated attack in order to remind North Korea about the US position on nuclear deterrence.
And so some North Korean launch activity is almost to be expected. Over the last few weeks, North Korea had launched about three dozen short range missiles to indicate its general displeasure at the ongoing US-South Korean military exercises. The launch of these longer-range missiles reminds more people that they are within shooting distance. The more people that are reminded that they can get hit, the louder the signal North Korea is sending. So this is a step up, but not cause for alarm.
North Korea has four types of medium and long-range missiles it can launch, and the Rodong-1 is the shortest-range missile in that category — in other words, it's the least loud form of yelling. This means there’s a lot more room for escalation, which there very well may be, because North Korea regularly needs to convince people, including China, that it is dangerous. So dangerous, in fact, that it should be paid money to calm down. Without this outside monetary support, the regime collapses.
Of course, if Kim Jong-un goes overboard with the missiles and the nukes, then everyone (including China) may become convinced that North Korea is a threat and needs to be put down like a lame horse. Which would also result in regime collapse.
If Kim too often creates a ruckus and upsets China, North Korea will get squeezed. Which threatens the regime with collapse.
If Kim isn’t assertive enough, there's the potential of internal political threats from hardliners. Which also threatens the regime with collapse.
Feel bad for Kim yet? Clearly, sending messages using only the language of missile launches is hard. The fonts for missile launch aren’t always supported, nobody can read the italics, and getting intonation and nuance across can be a real pain. However, as the US and South Korea continue their annual war rehearsals in coming weeks, North Korea will probably chime in at least a few more times.