With the exception of few skeptics who do not believe that Chairman Kim Jong-un has what it takes to launch Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Tests (ICBMs) that can travel ever higher with targeted reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, research community are in agreement that North Korea’s nuclear threat is expanding.
But a threat to whom? The answer is a threat to all, including North Korea itself. How does the logic play out?
First and foremost, to the degree the international community does want to rid itself of the specter of nuclear annihilation, then very obviously North Korea provocative actions of lobbing missiles throughout 2022, accompanied by bellicose rhetoric against the United States, South Korea and Japan, will just make things worse.
Second, the nuclear umbrella of the US, based on its nuclear superiority in the Korean Peninsula, leaves no mercy for anyone to attack Japan and South Korea. Thus, by making repeated tauntings, where six missile launches were made in two weeks, North Korea is making the whole world unsafe, especially with its latest Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRCM) test on October 5.
More importantly, the missile flew a distance of about 4,600 kilometers, with an altitude of some 1,000 km and a top speed reaching Mach 17 – meaning 17 times the speed of sound, according to Japanese officials. By way of comparison, the US island territory of Guam is just 3,380 km from North Korea.
Third, North Korea is often seen as the “proxy” of China, to a lesser degree, Russia. Currently, the triangular relations of Russia, China and the US are not good at all to say the least.
When North Korea breaks the United Nations sanctions against such launches, this behavior is blamed on China and Russia.
Fourth, at a time when US President Joe Biden has invoked the image of a “nuclear Armageddon” against President Vladimir Putin in Russia, the worst since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 60 years, North Korea’s antics are making any form of world peace impossible.
The fact that this is a law that says should Chairman Kim be in an “accident,” then North Korea should seek a preemptive strike first, is galling.
Be that as it may, the security situation in the Korean Peninsula is further aggravated by two other factors.
One, China has signed a Treaty of Unlimited Cooperation with Russia on February 4. Twenty days later, Russia invaded Ukraine, inviting the opprobrium of the US, if not the 27 member states of the European Union.
A European Political Community of 44 member states was formed on Oct. 6 that excludes Russia and Belarus.
The divisions in Europe against Russia and Belarus are emboldening North Korea to behave as it pleases granted that Chairman Kim is counting on the US and NATO being distracted.
The fact is when North Korea and the US are at loggerheads, Sino-US relationship takes a dip.
The downward spiral of China and the US’s relationship, in particular, will lead to an escalatory competition to pip one versus the other, either at the level of Asean or the Pacific Island Forum (PIF), both of which being the platform that China and the US are locked in a race to outbid each other.
This is true even though foremost to the concern of these two regional organizations are issues such as climate change, economic development, a pandemic that has gone endemic and the need for more infrastructure investment.
Asean and the PIF do not want to be entwined in the geopolitical rivalry of China and the US, let alone another third major great power, therein, Russia, to make things even more complicated than it is.
Some member states of Asean, especially, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines are not bemused by North Korea’s antics.
The member states of Asean are already struggling badly to bring the military dictatorship of Myanmar to yield to the Jakarta five-point consensus since April 2021.
If anything, the leader of the Myanmar junta, Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who launched a coup against the democratically elected government on February 1, 2021, cannot help but be delighted that he has Chairman Kim to continue to don the role of the East Asian peace spoiler since the time of his grandfather in 1950.
Pyongyang’s mischief carries huge consequences on the centrality on Asean. The world does not take Asean’s problem with Myanmar seriously. Tatmadaw’s own murderous rule where more than few thousands dissidents have been killed, with 15,000 political prisoners in detention, have made Asean look meek.
Yet, the more murderous it becomes the more likely the people of Myanmar will rise up against Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. Myanmar will crack. No member states of Asean would want to handle the large outflow of refugees of various ethnic affiliations.
Indeed, not all 54 million people in Myanmar are necessarily of one mind to keep Myanmar in its current form. Although the Burmese is the majority, there are 24 armed insurgencies against the Tatmadaw or the Myanmar military.
Thus, the member states of Asean will look kindly to North Korea’s missile antics, as they carry further repercussions on the weakness of “Asean centrality” through and through.
Therefore, Chairman Kim’s petulant behavior is exactly the kind of arrogance that the member states of Asean would want the Tatmadaw to avoid.
In this sense, the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta has to be further upgraded from its current form.
The Asean secretary-general is often too silent. Other than being self-absorbed with the creation of Asean Community by 2025, a project that seems to be strong on rhetoric and official statements, but poor on actual implementation, the secretary-general’s office is weak.
This office is not sufficiently alert to speak up on behalf of the region, when the Asean secretary-general has actually been endowed with the status of the minister since 1992. It has been 30 years. Yet the Asean Secretariat does not know how to leverage its role as a legacy institution to speak up.
When the Asean Secretariat, which has a seat at the table to speak up without attempting to talk down at anyone, a form of unhealthy diplomatic culture will begin to brew: See no evil, speak no evil and say no evil.
In failing to highlight the threat posed by North Korea, obviously Asean as a regional organization cannot speak up on any other country’s egregious behavior.
This leads to the question of: What then is Asean or ex Asean staff members good at? Can they really teach when they have already failed at their jobs years ago?
(Phar Kim Beng is founder/CEO of the Center of Pan Indo Pacific Arena).