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The most recent North Korean missile tests have also exposed the vulnerability of existing missile defence. Seoul responded to the North’s firing of a missile over Japan by testing its own Hyunmoo-2 missiles minutes later. Not all of the South’s missiles hit their targets, bringing into question the South’s state of military readiness and capabilities. Equally, the North’s tests raised the glaring question of why Japan did not try to shoot down the missiles with its Aegis radar missile destroyers in the Sea of Japan or Patriot anti-air missiles. Both were intended for just that purpose. There has been considerable press speculation that this was deliberate intelligence-gathering by the US. The reality is that there are no THAAD batteries in Japan, the Patriot system is not designed to deal with this kind of missile, and the Aegis systems would have had to be removed from their position for protecting land targets. The Japanese were perhaps also quick to realise the consequences of failing to hit their target.

Missile defence experts question whether even the vaunted THAAD system could effectively counter North Korean missiles. Certainly it will never offer failsafe protection from a mixed barrage of conventional and nuclear warheads. That task would be akin to finding, and neutralising, a needle in a haystack.

The latest tests change the deterrence logic at play in the region, so even if South Korea or Japan are unlikely to use nuclear weapons that doesn’t mean they won’t try to acquire them as a deterrent. That in turn carries a clear risk of regional escalation and unintended consequences. North Korea’s suddenly increased pace of testing seems to be exploiting this vulnerability in order to keep the US, South Korea, Japan and China continually off-balance, even before Pyongyang has a fully-working strategic weapon. The analogy is with Kim Jong-il’s pursuit of a nuclear capability even while negotiating with the Bush administration, resulting in their first nuclear test in 2006.

Clearly Pyongyang feels that the bar against preventative war remains so high that it is safe from allied attack and, because no red lines have been imposed, that there is little danger of miscalculation. In short, there are no red lines to be crossed. Kim’s rapidly increasing schedule of bomb and missile tests is designed to exploit the space between diplomatic engagement and military strikes. His aim appears to be to normalise the idea of North Korea as a nuclear- and missile-armed state. So far, his strategy appears to be working.

The US has to consider whether now is the time to fully switch to a policy of nuclear deterrence. In theory, that policy has been in place on the Korean peninsula for a considerable time but it has done nothing to deter the North from acquiring nuclear weapons. It is a considerable gamble to see if it will prevent a nuclear exchange in Korea. Although deterrence worked during the Cold War, it was predicated on a certain type of specific rationality shared between the actors. The burden of history suggests that North Korea is a rational actor. However, Pyongyang has an intransigent hostility to the US, unlike Russia or China. The Hermit Kingdom’s isolation and lack of participation in the international community make it a more unpredictable nuclear power. If the world accepts North Korea as a nuclear power, deterrence will require some degree of normalisation of relations with a dictatorship that most countries find morally repugnant. Equally, there is the unknown quantity of the North’s command and control function and whether an over-zealous local commander might inadvertently unleash a nuclear exchange.

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