Crazy Timing? Now All of Asia Is Arming Itself to Resist North Korea's Nukes

 | Sep 07, 2017 | 10:00 AM EDT
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Talk about awkward timing.

In Russia's easternmost city, Vladivostok, host Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Vladivostok is Russia, but it is Asia as well. It sits only some 60 miles or so, as the missile flies, from Russia's narrow border with North Korea. That crossing is just over 10 miles across, but it means nuclear Russia has blood ties with nuclear China and their curious hermit cousin who lives next door.

Abe has already met in Vladivostok with his South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in. The two leaders called for stronger punishment of North Korea over its nuclearization. Seoul and Tokyo are surely now considering the need for nukes themselves. 

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un sure picked a curious time to test his latest nuclear weapon. It was an explosion, from a bomb eight times more powerful than that at Hiroshima, that felt like an earthquake well inside China, and Russia, too. 

Kim's detonation came on the eve of the summit for the BRICS nations that China hosted in Xiamen. Chinese President Xi Jinping himself gave the red-carpet welcome. And that southeastern city, formerly known as Amoy, sits right across from Taiwan. 

Here in Hong Kong, we're more used to wondering how the United States is going to end up in nuclear war with China over that particular island. Taiwan is a "rogue province" to China, and a country that can't call itself a nation to everyone else. But the North Korean blast temporarily blew that fear into the past.

Besides messing with the heads of five major state leaders at the BRICS meeting, the test came ahead of the subsequent meetings between Putin, Abe and Moon in Vladivostok. Besides being the closest Russian city to North Korea, Vladivostok also the closest Russian city to Tokyo, a two-hour flight southeast.

Again, a missile could make that trip in minutes. And that's not lost on anyone in attendance, either in Xiamen or on Russia's east coast.

It is hard to fathom what Kim Jong-un sees as his ultimate goal with his nuclear provocations. For sure, this latest test is designed to ram the message home that he has nukes and wants a seat at the negotiating table. It's equally a message to enemies within North Korea that he sits in power and must not be challenged. 

Kim was young and little known until his accession upon his father's state funeral on Dec. 28, 2011. As his father's third son, he was hardly the rightful heir to his country's dictatorial throne. But North Korea's second nuclear test, in May 2009, came immediately before Kim was identified as next in line, after his father suffered a stroke the year before.

There wasn't even a photograph of the younger Kim circulating outside North Korea (and who knows about within it) at the time of his coronation. But his resemblance to his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea as it now exists (you can't really call it modern), is uncanny. And now we have plenty of photos of Kim -- including examining a nuclear-bomb-like device immediately before one went off.

Kim may want to force the United States to the negotiating table in a way that preserves his regime. He may want simply to meet Donald Trump in person instead of hanging out with Dennis Rodman all the time. Trump and Kim undoubtedly see similarities in each other.

Kim may, according to the variety of interesting theories posited in this thoughtful article from the Financial Times, want to push the situation to a point where it drives a wedge between the United States and South Korea, calling the Pentagon's bluff as to whether it really will defend Seoul.

It isn't working. Trump has backed himself into a corner where he can't warn Kim anymore, since Kim responded with his own warning to that threat. Now Trump won't talk to Kim, or so he says. He flails around as to what to do with the leaders in Seoul and Tokyo, but when he's calm he will realize he needs them and must protect them.

And Moon's pacifist intentions have vanished. That leaves me surrounded by strong and relatively warlike male leaders. Putin is a power-crazed former spy hell-bent on resuscitating Russia's military might and Cold War importance. Xi wants to be the modern embodiment of Chairman Mao and build China into Asia's superpower. Abe is a hawk who wants to allow Japan to have an army, rather than a defense force.

Abe was having to back off that quest, his popularity hurt by a series of domestic scandals. His approval ratings are back up. And it is a very good question why Japan should sit around and watch other nearby nations, particularly unstable ones, have nukes without at least being able to defend itself. "Offense is the best defense" does translate into Japanese.

Moon, whose parents were refugees from North Korea in the 1950s, was expected to take a softer tack on North Korea. He might have even opened the door to Seoul's Sunshine Policy initiated in the 1990s. A leader who only took office in February, Moon was busy pressing for the U.S. missile system to be scaled down before North Korea ramped the pressure up.

Forget that. Moon cannot be seen as weak with Pyongyang. Seoul has already hustled into action. It has enabled the addition of more U.S. missile launchers to the THAAD missile-defense system it has allowed the American armed forces to house on a former golf course owned by the Lotte chaebol.

On Thursday, around 38 people were injured as 8,000 South Korean riot police forced open the road to allow a convoy of U.S. forces to move in place the final four launchers in the scheme. The THAAD, system now includes six rocket launchers and powerful radar and communications systems.

Oh, for the good old days when China fiercely protested that the THAAD missile system, which stands for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, could be used to spy on Chinese troop movements. It went without saying that the system could shoot down Chinese missiles, as well as North Korean ones. And who knows if those defenses can shift into reverse?!

China is still protesting the installation. But c'mon, really? I think South Korea gets a pass on this one. Seoul must have been doing a lot more defense shopping of late. So, too, Tokyo. So, too, Taiwan. Putin and Xi are checking their arsenals.

A little nuclear test goes a long way.

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