The increasing tensions between the United States and North Korea over a possible intercontinental ballistic missile test are not provoking strong reactions in East Asia.
On Sunday, North Korea declared it could test-launch an intercontinental ballistic missile at any time from any location, according to an unnamed Foreign Ministry spokesman who was quoted by the official KCNA news agency.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter responded by calling an ICBM launch a "serious threat' to the United States, and would not rule out taking military action to shoot down the missile if it crossed into the territory of the U.S. or its allies.
"If it were coming--if it were threatening to us, yes. That is, if it's predicted impact or one of our friends or allies, yes, we would shoot it down," said Carter.
On Monday, the South Korean Defense Ministry called North Korea’s talk of an ICBM test “regrettable” and said there would be consequences in terms of international sanctions, but did not comment on possible U.S. military action.
“If North Korea ignores our warning and launches an ICBM, it will face more strong and thorough sanctions and pressure from South Korea as well as from the international community,” said South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Moon Sang-kyun.
A long range ICBM test would not be an unprecedented technological feat for North Korea. It has already conducted four satellite launches using its Taepodong-2 missiles as rockets. The North’s space program has been widely denounced as a hostile pretense to advance its nuclear and ballistic missile technologies that are banned by United Nations resolutions.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has made clear in the last year his government’s ambition to achieve a credible nuclear deterrence. Increasing international sanctions imposed have failed to deter the North from intensifying its development efforts with two nuclear tests and 24 missile launches in the last year. Last week, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said of the North’s nuclear program that “with every passing day, the threat does get more acute.”
North Korea is believed to have the ability to strike nearby South Korea and Japan with a nuclear weapon. But there remain questions over the North’s ability to reach the U.S. mainland.
Although Pyongyang claims it has successfully miniaturized a nuclear device to fit on the head of a long-range missile, it has not demonstrated that capability. Nor has it yet tested the missile's re-entry capability needed to reach a specific target while withstanding extremes of temperature and vibration. An ICBM test would be the next step in the development process.
South Korea sees the Kim government’s warning of an ICBM test as an attempt to force the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump to engage the North on its terms.
“By maintaining its position to continue firing (missiles) and provocations, (North Korea) intends to bring a change of attitude in the U.S., and shift responsibility (to the U.S.) when North Korea fires (a missile) in future,” said the South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee.
At the beginning of the year Trump first prompted speculation of a possible U.S. military strike against a North Korean missile launch when he tweeted, “It will not happen,” in response to Kim Jong Un's New Year’s message that implied the North was ready to conduct an ICBM test.
“Both diplomatically and politically, if Korea fires an ICBM targeting the U.S. before a rough sketch of Trump's security strategy for Northeast Asia is drawn, it will bring a contrary result with Trump's strong policy against North Korea,” said Chung Sung-yoon, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
Neither Beijing nor Tokyo offered any strong official reaction on Monday to the ICBM warnings coming out of Pyongyang and Washington.
Last week Trump criticized China in a tweet for not reigning in the North Korea nuclear threat. Although North Korea is dependent on China for 90 percent of its trade, Beijing has been reluctant to apply strong economic pressure on its ally for fear it would lead to increased instability on its border and a stronger U.S. presence on the Korean Peninsula.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang last week defended his country’s efforts to peacefully resolve the nuclear issue and urged the incoming Trump administration to “avoid remarks and actions to escalate the situation.”
Tokyo this week seems more focused on a flare up in tensions with Seoul over a second Comfort Woman statue that was placed in front of the Japanese consulate in the South Korean city of Busan.
On Monday, the Japanese ambassador and consul general to South Korea were called back home in protest.
This latest dispute comes after the two countries reached a bilateral agreement in December of 2015 to resolve the contentious issue over the Korean women forced to work as prostitutes in Japanese military brothels during World War II.
In the settlement, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued an agreed upon apology and Japan donated $8 million to support the surviving comfort women. South Korea also agreed to try to facilitate Japan’s request to remove a “comfort woman” statue erected across from the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
Seoul contends the statues fall outside the agreement as they belong to private organizations and not to the state, but Tokyo sees them as violations of the spirit of the agreement.
Youmi Kim and Han Sang-mi in Seoul contributed to this report.