Slipping away from Ukraine for a brief spell, North Korea’s latest missile test is raising concerns across the world. The US, South Korea and Japan have all condemned what looks to be the test of an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) by the North on Thursday, its first ICBM test since 2017. The test was far from unexpected. US officials have been warning for weeks now that an ICBM test was probable in the ‘near future.’ The missile flew for 71 minutes, traveled a distance of 671 miles, and reached a maximum altitude of 3,852 miles. It landed 100 miles off the coast of Japan, prompting Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to label the launch as ‘reckless’ and ‘unacceptable.’
This missile, officially named the Hwasong-17, has upgraded capabilities over its predecessor, with the ability to reach the United States and carry multiple-independently targeted re-entry vehicles. In other words, more than a single warhead. It is more of a threat to the United States than Western Pacific nations, yet this has not deterred South Korea from staging its own demonstration in response to Pyongyang’s launch, firing its own ballistic and cruise missiles and dropping guided bombs, in order to “demonstrate the determination and capability to immediately respond and punish” North Korea.
Amid growing pressure both at home and abroad, the Biden administration will announce a ban on Russian oil imports to the United States this morning. The move is intended to hold Russia accountable for its invasion of Ukraine, which is now entering its thirteenth day. The ban is not expected to have too great of an impact on US oil imports, certainly not to the level a ban by European nations would bring about.
The humanitarian corridor and attached ceasefire in Ukraine’s Sumy region appears to be holding at present. Evacuations of civilians from Sumy to Poltava have started and remain underway. In a related development, the Ukrainian government has also confirmed that evacuations from Irpin, a town located near Kiev are now underway. Efforts to evacuate civilians from Mariupol are meeting with considerably less success.
Japan has announced a new batch of sanctions aimed at Russia and Belarus. The assets of nearly three dozen Russian and Belarusian officials, business executives with close connections to the governments and oligarchs have been frozen. Exports of Russia-bound oil refinery equipment and Belarus-bound general-purpose items that could be used by its military will also be banned.
While much of the world’s attention is focused on Ukraine and Russia, North Korea has conducted a string of missile tests over the last month. The most recent test firing came yesterday, and was the nation’s most powerful test since 2017. It was an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) that reached an altitude of 2,000 kilometers before descending into the Sea of Japan. The tests this month have defied the UN ban on ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests by North Korea.
Sunday’s test was condemned by Japan, South Korea and the United States. Aside from words of condemnation and warning, however, there has been no concrete response from regional powers or from the US. South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in did remark that this round of missile tests is similar to 2017 when the North conducted nuclear tests and fired powerful missiles, some of which flew over Japan.
As for the reason behind these tests, there are a variety of opinions floating around. Some colleagues believe the tests are a signal to the world. A demonstration of North Korea’s military prowess to create a position of strength from which Pyongyang can use to its advantage. Then there is the timing of these tests. The Winter Olympics are set to start soon in Beijing and the South Korean presidential election is scheduled for March. Kim Jong Un might want to influence both, or at the very least remind the world North Korea is still there.
While I believe the reasons above are viable theories, conditions in North Korea are likely the main driving force behind the January surge of missile tests. The economy continues to struggle from a combination of factors; economic sanctions, COVID-19, and thirty-plus years of gross mismanagement on every level. These have combined to place the government in a precarious position. Kim Jong Un might be gambling that the US and other world powers realize the North is growing desperate and needs relief before the situation comes to a head. North Korea has employed this strategy before without success. Why Kim Jong Un would opt to try again is unclear.
Vietnam’s importance to the South China Sea region has never been underestimated by the major players in the region or their allies around the world. This past weekend, Hanoi’s increasing significance was on full display as the government welcomed senior government officials from Japan and China. The purpose behind the visit by a senior Chinese diplomat was to smooth over relations between the two nations and urged Vietnam to resist the intervention of outside players into the disputes between Beijing and Hanoi over claims in the South China Sea. The reason for Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi’s trip to Vietnam was more practical. On Saturday, the two nations signed a deal enabling the export of Japanese-made weapons and equipment to Vietnam.
Wang Yi, a senior Chinese diplomat stopped in Hanoi during a one-week tour through Southeast Asia. He stated that China and Vietnam should safeguard the peace and stability in the South China Sea and be wary of external players moving to disrupt that. This was obviously a shot at the United States and the less-than successful visit by Vice President Harris to Vietnam last month. China and Vietnam agreed to manage disagreements and avoid complicating situations or expanding disputes. In short, not airing their dirty laundry or looking to external states and supranational bodies to mediate disputes.
Ironically enough, the agreement signed between Japan and Vietnam later on the same weekend was a clear example of Vietnam welcoming the assistance of an extraterritorial nation-state amid concerns about China’s growing military power. Details on the transfer of specific equipment and systems will be worked out in subsequent talks. However, naval vessels will be included in the transfer. Japanese Defense Minister Kishi and his Vietnamese counterpart, Phan Van Giang also agreed on the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight in the Indo-Pacific region. This was obviously in reference to China’s aggressive maneuvering in the South China Sea.
China and Vietnam are at odds over the Spratly and Paracel Island groups in the region.
Yesterday’s decision by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to step down at the end of the September came as a shock even though it was widely expected. Suga’s handling of the latest COVID-19 outbreak in Japan has been seen as ineffective and his public support has plummeted. Suga’s own party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has lost confidence in him, a death knell for any prime minister. To be fair, Suga was never expected to become more than a placeholder. His time in office followed the tenure of Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.
The prospects of a Quad Partnership summit in Washington later this month are rapidly dimming now, owing to the return of Japanese political instability. Even though some sources claim there is still a possibility of a meeting happening, it doesn’t seem likely at this time. However, there are growing indications that India’s leader Narendra Modi will visit the United States this month. There has been no official confirmation, yet Today’s DIRT has learned from friends within the Indian government that preparations for the trip are underway.
A visit to Washington and subsequent meeting with President Biden could occur on September 23-24, followed by Modi traveling to New York City for the UN General Assembly.If the trip does happen, it will mark the first in-person meeting between Modi and Biden, coming on the heels of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan as well as rising tensions in the Western Pacific.