In its latest effort to ratchet up tensions on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea may go ballistic — literally — as soon as tomorrow, possibly launching an intermediate-range “Musudan” missile from its east coast, according to press reports.
The big question is: at who or what?
The “good” news is that the range of the mobile Musudan missile isn’t well-suited for targeting North Korea’s archenemies: South Korea, the United States or Japan. This means that the likely destination of Pyongyang’s latest provocation will be the open waters of the Pacific Ocean, where any launch will hopefully terminate in little more than big splashes of salty water — and North Korean propaganda.
But before you start your happy dance, there’s bad news, too.
First, assuming North Korea is going to launch a Musudan (a land-based knockoff of a Soviet-era sub-launched ballistic missile, according to IHS Jane’s) in an open-ocean test, the missile may pass over Japan.
Considering the possibility of a less than fully-successful flight test, this could result in missile debris falling on Japanese territory, causing death or destruction on the ground.
North Korea has tested missiles over Japan in the past, going back to a long-range missile test in 1998. This time, Japan could shoot the Musudan down using its own missile defenses, intensifying the already-simmering crisis.
The United States isn’t free and clear, either.
It’s believed that Pyongyang hasn’t tested this missile before, creating questions about how far it can actually fly en route to a target; some experts like Jane’s believe the Musudan’s expected ranges to be about 1,500 to 2,500 miles.
If this is the case, this means that, while Hawaii (at about 4,500 miles) isn’t threatened by the Musudan missile, Guam (at about 2,200 miles) might be on the outer edge of its threat ring.
The U.S. missile-defense capable ships in the Western Pacific and the Theater High Altitude Air Defense — or THAAD — that the Obama administration recently deployed to Guam could come in really handy if North Korea shoots a missile in that direction.
Equally troubling is that if North Korea is successful in testing the Musudan or another similar missile, it means Pyongyang will proudly put a new (mobile, nuclear-capable) arrow in its already-prodigious ballistic missile quiver, increasing its military might.
Plus, it’s possible that North Korea will share the results of its latest launch with its proliferation partner Iran, where the two countries are suspected of sharing both missile and nuclear technology and know-how.
Lastly, a successful missile test will come on top of triumphant tests of a long-range missile (in December) and a nuclear weapon (in February), possibly filling the head of North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, with delusions of grandeur.
This situation could be the most dangerous of all.
Seeing his regime on a roll, the inexperienced Kim could continue to toss the strategic dice in a game of belligerence, brinkmanship and blackmail, vastly increasing the chances of misperception and miscalculation — ending in dire consequences.
-Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.