North Korea’s latest missile test, which involved sending what U.S. intelligence officials believe was a Hwasong-12, the intermediate-range ballistic missile that Pyongyang has been threatening to shoot into the waters near the U.S. territory of Guam, was sent on the only trajectory it could be without causing a major escalation and response.

Stephan Haggard, a political scientist and Korea expert at the University of California at San Diego described it as a “perfectly calibrated to create political mischief.”

“The launch shows how Kim Jong Un is weirdly conservative, calibrating tests so that they are difficult to counter, flying just beneath the radar of a required kinetic response,” Haggard said.

Analysts noted that the launch allows North Korea to gather critical telemetry data for its advancing ballistic missile program without provoking a military response from South Korea or the United States.

Pyongyang could not have tested the missile’s range firing it in any other direction without risking a devastating response since North Korea is encased by South Korea, China and Russia.

Taro Kono, Japan’s foreign minister, acknowledged as much. “If North Korea had launched the missile to the south, the U.S. might have viewed it as a considerable provocation and responded accordingly,” Kono told reporters after the launch.

In addition, the launch appeared aimed at driving a wedge between the U.S. and its Japanese ally.

Source: Washington Post

Why it’s on our radar: As I noted earlier this morning, the missile’s trajectory took it over Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, the country’s second-largest whose capital is Sapporo. This really upset the Japanese, especially their leader, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who immediately telephoned President Donald Trump. 

As I wrote earlier, “At some point, Japan will have to send the North Koreans a message that Tokyo isn’t willing to sit idly by as Pyongyang casually lobs missiles in its direction. Surely Mr. Abe knows this.” He does, of course. And so does Trump and his national security team. 

The question is, however, will there be one? China seems to think so. So does Russia

Japan’s constitution forbids it from launching first-strike offensive military action but under Abe the government reinterpreted the constitution in 2014 to allow the military to come to the aid of friendly countries under attack, including the United States. That said, one could even argue that North Korea lobbing ballistic missiles over Japanese territory could constitute outside aggression that would justify a counterstrike. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was betting that he would be able to get away with this risky test and so far he’s been right. If nothing comes his way except more threats of sanctions and “diplomatic protests,” he will take his risk as a win and push forward with new tests that will most likely pierce Japanese airspace. Until Japan and the U.S. push back.

If the Trump administration balks, it will reveal to the Japanese that the U.S. is an erstwhile ally at best and an unwilling partner at worst, and Kim will have successfully driven his wedge. And South Korea will be paying attention. So will China.

This could either be a major turning point in how the U.S., Japan, and South Korea respond to North Korean aggression moving forward, as China suspects, or it could be the beginning of the end of longstanding U.S. alliances in the region. 

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