The ongoing situation with North Korea is quite serious and could rapidly spiral out of control unless all the governments involved take careful steps to make sure they do not miscalculate.
Most military analysts, as well as the US and Japan, see Pyongyang’s planned launch of a so-called satellite rocket as a thinly veiled test of the type of long-range missile that could possibly deliver a nuclear warhead to the continental US.
Any number of things can go wrong with this test. After the rocket blasts off, it will fly over South Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese and then Philippine airspace. If at any stage of its flight the missile loses power, tonnes of metal could come crashing to the ground, endangering anything and everything below.
Philippine officials have already announced restrictions on sea lanes and they plan to ground air traffic during the test to avoid any possibility of a mishap. Taiwan, Japan and South Korea would be advised to take precautions as well.
On top of the possibility of an accident, there is the very real possibility of an escalation. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has given the Japanese Ministry of Defense authority to shoot the North Korean rocket down if it threatens Japanese airspace. This could easily be accomplished over Okinawa, where the rocket is scheduled to do a fly-by and where both Japan and the US have plenty of anti-missile rockets deployed.
Although Japan is fully within its rights to shoot down the missile — Japan has said in the past that it would do so if North Korea were to ever shoot a rocket over its territory again — it would set a dangerous precedent. Up to now, the military situation in Northeast Asia, with the exception of occasional skirmishes between North and South Korea, has been characterized primarily by saber rattling. If Japan shoots a North Korean missile down, it can no longer be seen as saber rattling, but rather open hostility.
There is plenty of evidence surfacing as well that North Korea is planning another nuclear test shortly after the rocket launch. If Japan shoots down its missile, North Korea’s newly minted leader, Kim Jong-un, will be under more pressure to show his resolve with a nuclear test.
The situation has China rattled in the same way that it has increased tension in the rest of the region. The last thing Chinese authorities want right now while they are in the midst of an internal power struggle ahead of the expected announcement of a leadership change is a regional military confrontation that they must get involved in. So we can expect them to do their best to rein North Korea in, but in all actuality, Beijing has about as much control over Pyongyang as Washington has over Jerusalem.
The situation is slippery and anything that affects the military balance in Northeast Asia could have an impact on Taiwan and the cross-strait military balance. The two most likely countries to come to Taiwan’s aid in a cross-strait military contingency could easily get involved in a military confrontation of their own with North Korea if everything were to spiral out of control, leaving Taiwan high and dry.
Although Taiwanese military authorities appear calm on the surface, you can bet they will be paying close attention to North Korea’s missile test.