Is the North Korean threat growing?

Is the North Korean threat growing?

The North Korean navy, under the supervision of Kim Jong-un, has managed to successfully test-fire a ballistic missile from a submarine. Though North Korea’s technology is not fully developed, it gives a peek into the threats of the future.

In early May, North Korea engaged in its most recent attempt at flexing its military muscle by launching a ballistic missile from an offshore submarine. Many were quick to link the launch with North Korea’s nuclear weapons, with some seeing it as a substantial shock to regional security.

This is because a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) gives North Korea new advantages that are harder to prepare against. As has been seen recently with Russia’s submarine activity in the Baltic Sea, submarines are not only flexible, but can also be hard to detect.

In theory, developing this technology further would make it much easier for North Korea to attack the United States, as well. Moreover, both Japan’s and South Korea’s missile defense systems are better geared towards land-launched missiles. Introducing the threat of SLBM means new challenges for their defense forces, especially in waters that are riddled with maritime border disputes.

To make matters worse, there have been recent signs that North Korea is reactivating its nuclear reactors, and Chinese experts recently claimed that Kim Jong-Un’s regime may have twice as many nuclear warheads as previously thought. The combination of an active nuclear weapons programme and SLBM turns North Korea into a source of considerable risk.

The regional security complex

When considering recent developments in the region, however, North Korea’s behavior isn’t actually very surprising.

First of all, Japan is in the process of reinventing its foreign policy by taking concrete steps to step up its military capabilities. This includes moves to get rid of restrictions on the Self Defense Forces (SDF), as well as increasing the defense budget.

What is more, South Korea is currently in negotiations to deploy a new missile defense system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD. Not only has this drawn criticism from China, but this development is a serious concern for the North, as well.

Alternatively, some have proposed the idea that North Korea is taking advantage of a situation where U.S. foreign policy is preoccupied elsewhere, such as in Ukraine and the Middle East. But this doesn’t seem accurate.

The United States remains very active in the region, which has often been met with Chinese accusations that the U.S. is trying to contain its regional influence. But while the U.S. denies such claims, it has been much more straightforward in its focus on countering North Korea.

Thus, from the perspective of the regime’s leadership, all of North Korea’s traditional enemies are acting in an increasingly threatening manner.

What to expect

As such, North Korea’s missile launch falls into the familiar pattern of its previous stunts: other countries behave in a way it doesn’t like, and it expresses its disapproval via military threats.

But even if its neighbors know this to be the case, it does very little to calm tensions. After the missile launch, South Korea vowed to respond with ‘merciless’ retaliation, though as of yet the South hasn’t pushed forward with any significant military action.

Nevertheless, it is very likely that South Korea will seek to accelerate deploying THAAD, and also to develop a robust defense system against SLBM. In other words, the Korean peninsula is once again experiencing an escalation in tensions.

Fortunately, as has been the case in the past, the markets reacted very mildly to North Korea’s show of power. The Korean Won showed little reaction, and the Korean stock exchange experienced even smaller tremors.

This is because a North Korean attack remains very unlikely due to its relatively weak military position, and so risk to economic activity is also small. However, this is a short-term consideration.

Though it may take the North several years to develop its submarine capabilities, it is nonetheless progressing towards its goal of full nuclear capabilities. The situation may be steady for the moment, but prospects for the midterm are less reassuring.

Indeed, investors will do well to monitor the situation on the Korean peninsula closely. Without de-escalation of tensions or a credible halt to North Korea’s weapons programs, Kim Jong-Un’s regime remains a growing source of regional political risk.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Karl Sorri

Karl has gained global experience working at the Transparency International Secretariat in Berlin, the Political/Economic Section of the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki, and as a freelance journalist. Karl holds an MA in Politics from the University of Glasgow and an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics.