[Carlyle A. Thayer is an Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. The views expressed are his own. All his background briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer). Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients.]
CAS article no. 0043/2017
A major development has just taken place today and we request your urgent assessment. North Korea fired a ballistic missile that passed over Japan, around 5:57 a.m. local time on Tuesday, August 29.
A South Korean military official told NBC News that the missile flew for about 2,700 kilometers (1,678 miles), reaching a maximum altitude of 550 kilometers (342 miles).
According to Itsunori Onodera, Japan’s defense minister, this missile was very likely a Hwasong-12, which is classified as intermediate range and is fired from mobile launchers. North Korea successfully tested a Hwasong 12 in May.
Notably, the missile fired on Tuesday took off from near Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. Early reports indicated it was launched from a site near Pyongyang’s international airport, not the usual launch site (remote areas, where there would be little concern about civilian casualties) in the northeast.
We request your response to the following questions:
Q1- This latest missile test may be Pyongyang’s most provocative test this year. In your assessment, what does it mean for North Korea to fly a missile over Japan? What is the message of Tuesday’s test?
ANSWER: North Korea’s firing of an intermediate range ballistic missile over Japan is a very provocative act and demonstrates that North Korea can strike U.S. allies, such as Japan and South Korea, that host American troops on their soil.
North Korea is demonstrating that it will respond to threats against its regime such as joint South Korean-U.S. exercises now underway and threats by President Donald Trump to unleash “fury and fire” against North Korea.
Each missile launch helps North Korea develop further its missile technology and create a more credible deterrent to respond with conventional, chemical and biological or nuclear weapons to any attack on its soil.
Q2- In your assessment, why did North Korea change the launch site this time?
ANSWER: North Korea fires its missiles from mobile sites to demonstrate that the United States or other adversaries cannot launch a pre-emptive strike and destroy all of North Korean missiles in one sudden attack. This means North Korea will have the capacity to absorb a first strike from the U.S. and then retaliate.
Q3- Japan said that their armed forces did not try to shoot down the North Korean missile on Tuesday because they did not detect a threat to Japanese territory. But do you think the actual reason is that it’s not easy to shoot down a ballistic missile?
ANSWER: Japan is in possession of the Patriot ballistic missile defence system that is capable of shooting down an intermediate range ballistic missile. Japanese (and U.S.) satellites and radar would have detected the missile on launch and calculated its trajectory. If Japan concluded that the missile was going to overfly Japan and there was no reason to shoot it down. But Japan may also have calculated that shooting the missile down might cause an unexpected reaction from North Korea. Finally, Japan may have calculated that the risks of taking no action were lower than the risks of shooting the missile down, especially if the Patriot missile defence system failed.