It's hardly a surprise that North Korea timed its first ballistic missile tests in eight years to coincide with Independence Day festivities in the U.S. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is an attention-seeker with few equals and his show of force was meant to be a carefully-scripted jolt to Washington.
But while Pyongyang's target audience may have been a half a world away, this provocation likely will further complicate relations between a Japan keenly interested in upgrading its defense capabilities and a China that definitely aspires to call the shots in the region.
North Korea's missiles—at least seven, including the long-range Taepodong 2 and short- and mid-range missiles such as Scuds and Rodongs—splashed down in waters hundreds of miles off Japan's western coast. The launch came after weeks of speculation that Pyongyang might fire a ballistic missile from the country's eastern coast, and had led to warnings from the U.S., Japan, South Korea, and China not to break a moratorium on long-range missile launches established in 1999.
Within hours of the launching, Washington and Tokyo condemned Pyongyang's actions, and Japanese officials discussed the idea of economic sanctions. Tokyo later refused a port call by a North Korean freighter that carries goods and travelers and represents the two countries' only trade link.
Japan could also move to shut down hard-currency flows to North Korea from its sizable Korean population on the archipelago. "We plan to take stern action," declared Shinzo Abe, Japan's hawkish Chief Cabinet Secretary and possible successor to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who departs in September.
Few would argue with Japan's concerns about the threat of attack from North Korea. While U.S. officials declared the tests a failure, Pyongyang's past claim that it can build nuclear weapons make the tests impossible to ignore. Experts believe North Korea had a point to make: Its weapons systems are advanced enough to launch both shorter-range missiles that can hit Japan's main islands and longer-range Taepodong missiles that can reach Alaska or the West Coast of the U.S.
"North Korea has shown it has a command center for controlling several launch pads," says Tetsuo Maeda, a defense expert and professor at Tokyo International University. "Without a command center, this would just be fireworks."
Others say it proves that North Korean military generals might be winning a power struggle with technocrats who want to remake their country into a state-controlled economy open to foreign investment, much like China's. "These tests were the military's display of resistance to reform-minded factions," says Toshiyuki Shikata, a North Korea expert at Teikyo University in Tokyo.
What worries Japan's neighbors most is that Tokyo will seize the chance to back away from its postwar pacifist posture and build up its military. The last time Pyongyang shot a Taepodong missile—which sailed over Japan and landed in the Pacific Ocean—in 1998, it drove Tokyo to align itself more closely with Washington.
ANOTHER ARMS RACE?
Under Koizumi, Japan has gradually shifted away from its pacifist stance and taken a more active role in international military missions. Koizumi sent troops on non-combat missions assisting U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq and backed the joint development of a U.S.-Japan missile-defense system that would act as the archipelago's first line of defense against incoming North Korean missiles.
Rising hostility from North Korea might prod Tokyo to consider further loosening postwar restrictions on the military and expanding funding for missile defense.
From China's perspective, "the test provides a political excuse for the U.S. and Japan to develop a missile defense system—for Japan to build up its defense capability, and for the U.S. to deploy more troops in the region," says Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University. The risk is that it could arouse China's suspicions and touch off an arms race that would further disrupt the regional balance of power.
With North Korea serving as a constant reminder of insecurity for the Japanese, the possibility of a missile attack is sure to boost Abe's chances of succeeding Koizumi. Abe, a popular politician who is the front-runner to succeed the Prime Minister in elections in coming months, has a reputation for being tough on both China and North Korea.
Given his hawkish views, he'd probably support upgrading the Defense Agency to a full-fledged ministry and building a more active military. That and a willingness to get confrontational with Beijing could further strain bilateral ties. Earlier this year, Abe accused Chinese officials of fomenting anti-Japanese protests in April, 2005, to deflect attention from the country's own political oppression and economic problems.
Still, North Korea may have overplayed its hand. In recent years, China has cultivated ties with Pyongyang by acting as its most generous benefactor and closest ally. Chinese officials' clout with North Korea has been a key to keeping negotiations with the U.S. and other nations going since 2002, when North Korean officials first admitted to having a secret nuclear weapons program.
LACK OF INFLUENCE.
Pyongyang's latest missile launches amounted to a slap in the face for China, whose premier, Wen Jiabao, had urged North Korea days earlier to "refrain from taking measures that will worsen the situation." Says John Feffer of the International Relations Center in New Mexico, and a Korea expert: "Even China's influence, despite it providing the bulk of energy and food (to North Korea), is relatively little."
That's scary for many, including the U.S., which has relied on China to take the lead on six-party talks with Russia, South Korea, and Japan. This week, Christopher Hill, U.S. assistant secretary of state, will head to Asia to try to defuse tensions. It's an open question whether Washington can come up with any new ideas that would help push the standoff toward a resolution.