North Korea: Playing with fire

Kim-Jong-Un’s calculation that there is not much more the west can do to him by way of sanctions or diplomatic isolation is a factor in his brazen confidence

The decision by Kim Jong-un on Sunday to fire a satellite-bearing rocket into space was, in reality, almost certainly the illegal test launch of a ballistic missile with potential to deliver a nuclear warhead to the western US mainland.

North Korea is still some way from having thecapacity to deliver such an attack but its refusal even slightly to curtail such testing is causing widespread alarm around the Pacific and seems set to provoke another dangerous ratcheting up of regional tensions.

As the US, Japan and South Korea step up co-operation on missile defence projects – the launch will significantly weaken internal South Korean opposition to such co-operation – all three will also turn to China to put manners on its wayward ally. To little avail. Beijing seems likely to do little beyond once again deploring Pyonyang’s actions.

It may be furious at North Korea’s repeated provocations, but is torn. Harsh economic sanctions, notably cutting off vital oil supplies, could precipitate a major refugee influx across its own border, and North Korea descended into chaos and famine. Or, worse still, see the North implode politically, ushering in unification with the South. Better, Beijing calculates, to sit on its hands.

Kim-Jong-Un’s calculation that there is not much more that the west can do to him by way of sanctions or diplomatic isolation is certainly a factor in his brazen confidence. But it may be misplaced.

He is playing with fire. Not least because the move has already prompted a significant new round of military co-operation talks between the US, Japan and South Korea, and a ne w commitment to build up of missile defence technology that could destabilise relations not only with Pyongyang but between the US and China.

Beijing, at odds with the US over its reaction to the building of artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea, quickly expressed “deep concern” about the threat to deploy a radar system which could penetrate Chinese territory.

Tthe UN security council met again on Sunday in emergency session to consider further sanctions.

But critical to any effective response must be the beginnings in Beijing of a reappraisal of its hands-off policy which is now undermining its own strategic interests.