Within hours of Kim Jong Un’s televised New Year’s address, the Pentagon issued a statement urging countries to impose “consequences” on North Korea should it test a ballistic missile. The North’s leader suggested his regime will soon conduct an “intercontinental ballistic rocket launch,” which appears to be code for a missile test prohibited by the UN Security Council.
Donald Trump also reacted. On Monday, he suggested the young Kim will not make good on his first boast of 2017. “It won’t happen!” declared the president-elect in a tweet.
Kim has three missiles—the Taepodong-2, the KN-08, and the KN-14—capable of reaching the lower 48 states. None of them is thought to be reliable or accurate. But a test firing, especially an unsuccessful one, will provide Kim’s technicians with data to help them correct deficiencies.
Given that Kim accelerated missile testing in the year just ended, his technicians are closing in on mating a nuclear warhead to a long-range missile and developing heat shielding. Many believe the North will have a deployable intercontinental ballistic missile in, say, four years. Little wonder that the White House reportedly told the Trump transition team that North Korea is the “top national security priority” for the incoming president.
One cannot know why Kim chose to threaten a missile test in Sunday’s address, but perhaps he senses a window of opportunity with Washington in the middle of a transition of power and Seoul preoccupied by the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye.
Xi Jinping could act should he choose to do so. Yet during his four years as China’s ruler he has done little to impede the North Korean ballistic missile program. And it has cost him nothing in his relations with the US or the rest of the world. It is thus unlikely he will help Washington rein in his country’s only formal military ally, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, given that senior generals are thought to be especially supportive of Pyongyang.
There are always internal constraints on Kim—most notably, the availability of resources—but at the moment external ones appear lacking. The risk of provocation from Pyongyang, in what looks like a period of little or no opposition, is therefore high.
The incoming Trump administration, therefore, could be faced with a crisis in North Asia before the lights go out at the inaugural balls.