Analysis: North Korea’s latest missile launch, over Japan

Paul Burton, Director at Jane’s by IHS Markit

The timing of the test shows that the North Korean regime has an acute sense of how to cause maximum impact with its accelerated missile testing program.

In firing what is believed to be a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) over the northern islands of Japan, Pyongyang is clearly intent upon raising the stakes amongst the Washington and its allies without establishing an overt provocation.

The launch over Japan comes as the US and Japan end a fortnight of Northern Viper (NV17) exercises in Hokkaido, which culminated in the demonstration of the very PAC-3 capabilities that could be called into action to destroy North Korean missiles. The test also came in the middle of annual South Korea-US exercises (Ulchi-Freedom Guardian), which the North had stated would “throw fuel onto fire” if held.

Further, South Korean President Moon Jae-in recently announced the temporary deployment of additional THAAD launchers across the country, following North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test in late July. On Monday, Moon also announced a shift in South Korean military posture, allowing for an immediate switch to offensive operations in the event of North Korean hostilities.

Overlaying all of this is the natural disaster in Houston, which means that US President Donald Trump will face unprecedented simultaneous challenges, both home and abroad. It is becoming increasingly difficult for Washington to react with sufficient weight in a way that indicates entrenched and enduring support for its allies in Seoul and Tokyo.

While regional co-operation on the establishment of a comprehensive, layered missile defense system is becoming critical, lingering bilateral tensions between multiple North Asian states, a reluctance to share operating system data, and the adverse reaction of China, will hamper the development of such a capability.