South Korea, Japan and the United States held emergency talks Friday on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit after North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile that landed off the Japanese coast.
U.S. allies Australia, Canada and New Zealand also joined the discussion.
Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters in Bangkok that the missile is believed “to have landed west of Hokkaido, inside Japan’s EEZ [Exclusive Economic Zone].”
Kishida said such provocative actions that North Korea has repeated with “unprecedented frequency” are “absolutely unacceptable.”
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said that the missile launch was a “brazen violation” of multiple U.N. resolutions and destabilizing for the region.
The protests will likely fall on deaf ears as North Korea is not a member of APEC and rarely takes part in multilateral events.
It is the North’s second intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, launch this month. On Nov. 3, it fired another ICBM among a volley of launches to protest against military drills by South Korea and the U.S.
Friday’s missile landed about 210 kilometers (126 miles) off Hokkaido, at around 11:20 a.m. (02:20 GMT). It is believed to have sufficient range to reach anywhere in the U.S. mainland.
Intercontinental ballistic missiles, designed to carry nuclear warheads, are the longest-range weapons that North Korea possesses.
Big power competition
Geopolitics and big power competition once again threaten to dominate the agenda of the third meeting of world leaders in two weeks.
The host, Thailand, has called on participating nations to “rise above differences” and focus on sustainable economic growth and development.
Established in 1989 to promote free trade in the region, APEC unites 21 members including the world’s two largest economies, China and the United States.
Beijing and Washington have been locked in a fierce rivalry over political influence and a number of unsolved issues in trade and security including tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who arrived in Bangkok on Thursday after attending the Group of 20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia, spoke of a mounting “Cold War mentality, hegemonism, unilateralism and protectionism”.
Xi did not mention any specific country but said that “Asia-Pacific is no one’s backyard and should not become an arena for a big power contest.”
“No attempt to wage a new Cold War will ever be allowed by the people or by our times,” he underscored.
Earlier this week in Bali the Chinese president and his U.S. counterpart met in person for the first time since Joe Biden took office two years ago.
The U.S. president said afterwards that “there need not be a new Cold War.”
Biden also said the United States “will continue to compete vigorously” with China but “this competition should not veer into conflict.”
The U.S. president is not present at the APEC summit, apparently having returned to Washington for a family event. Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in Bangkok on Thursday night to take his place.
U.S. officials said Harris will visit Palawan island in the South China Sea on Tuesday. She will be the most senior U.S. official to visit the Philippine province.
Palawan sits on the edge of the disputed waters claimed by several countries in the region including China and the visit may be seen by Beijing as provocative.
China claims “historic rights” to almost 90% of the South China Sea and has been militarizing some of its artificial islands despite protests from neighboring countries.
Another flashpoint between Beijing and Washington is Taiwan, which President Xi described as “the core of China’s core interests,” and “the first insurmountable red line in U.S.-China relations.”
APEC provides a rare opportunity to send an envoy to an international summit, with the island again represented by the 91-year-old founder of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. (TSMC), Morris Chang.
Normally Beijing would protest against any presence of Taiwanese representatives at international forums but Chang’s attendance shows the importance of Taiwan as one of the world’s leading technology suppliers, said Norah Huang, associate research fellow at the Prospect Foundation, a Taiwanese think-tank.
“Morris Chang has been Taiwan’s special envoy to the APEC leaders summit for six times so his presence shouldn’t be a problem to Xi,” Huang told RFA.
“If Taiwan sent a serving politician, the Chinese would be very unhappy,” she said.
Political circles in Beijing see Chang’s attendance in a different light.
Gao Zhikai, Vice President of the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization, said that APEC “counts on economies, rather than sovereign countries, as members” so Taiwan and Hong Kong can take part.
“China is perfectly fine with this arrangement,” Gao told RFA.
“The U.N. and many other international organizations only admit sovereign countries as members, and Taiwan is not a sovereign country,” he added.
Chang’s TSMC is the world’s largest chip producer and it has helped Taiwan secure the position as one of China’s main semiconductor suppliers.
Disrupted supply chain
China imports U.S. $300 billion worth of chips a year, more than any other commodities.
As the island’s APEC special envoy, the TSMC founder “should seek to draw the attention of APEC members to Taiwan’s key influence in global supply chains,” Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen told a press conference in October.
Tsai also said Taiwan is willing to collaborate with its regional partners to “develop a framework for inclusive and sustainable economic development.”
Taiwan’s unusual position in the global supply chains highlights the need for stability and sustainability in the region’s economic recovery.
Xi Jinping in his summit address also urged APEC members to build stable and unimpeded industrial and supply chains.
“By nature, having this kind of meeting among top leaders is a good thing, especially because geopolitical tensions have risen while COVID has precluded in-person dialogues,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at the prestigious Chulalongkorn University in Thailand.
“Ice-breaking and tension reduction are best done in person,” he added.
“APEC is still relevant and effective for pooling together leading multinationals across crucial economies,” the political analyst said.
The APEC summit, which ends Saturday, is taking place amid high security in the Thai capital. On Friday, anti-government Thai protesters clashed with riot police near Democracy Monument, about seven kilometers (four miles) from the summit venue. Protest leader Patsaravalee Tanakitvibulpon said five protesters were injured in clashes with police. She said police used rubber bullets against protesters. At least 25 protesters were arrested according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a claim confirmed by the police.
“We arrested 25 people and charged them with breaking the law on public gatherings, vandalism, and arson among other offenses,” said Pol. Maj. Gen. Achayon Kraithong, spokesman for the Royal Thai Police.
“There were some 350 protesters breaking the rules. Officials tried to negotiate with them but they did not listen. They even hurt the police, throwing rocks at them, vandalized trucks and other things,” he said.
In reaction to Friday’s missile launch by North Korea, the United States called on the international community to “fully implement” U.N. Security Council resolutions that would limit Pyongyang’s ability to conduct further missile tests, Department of State Spokesperson Ned Price said, adding that Washington’s commitment to defend South Korea and Japan “remain ironclad.”
John Kirby, Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council, said Washington is still willing to conduct dialogue without preconditions to work towards denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.
“Every single time they launch, they learn and that’s concerning,” Kirby said, “That’s destabilizing not just to the peninsula but to the region itself.”
Kirby reiterated that U.S. would continue to work with South Korea and Japan to ensure they have adequate defensive capabilities.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres also condemned the launch through a spokesperson, reiterating a call for North Korea to “immediately desist from taking any further provocative actions” and comply with Security Council resolutions and return to dialogue.
An EU spokesperson told RFA’s Korean Service that the launch was an “unlawful and irresponsible action,” and officials from France, the U.K., and Canada tweeted similar messages of disapproval.
Learning from failure
Pyongyang continues to develop weapons to threaten South Korea, Japan and even the U.S. homeland, with the goal of getting undeserved concessions from Washington, Brad Bowman, Senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told RFA.
“Instead of being bullied, Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo should seek to create the strongest and most unified combined military deterrent possible, making clear that an attack on South Korea, Japan, or the United States would be the end of the oppressive Kim Jong-un regime,” he said.
It is still too early to tell which type of missile North Korea fired, with the strongest possibilities being the Hwasong-15 or Hwasong-17, both of which are capable of reaching the United States, Bruce Klingner, Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, told RFA.
“If it was the Hwasong-17, that would be the first successful flight of the multi warhead ICBM,” he said. “But even if it’s only a Hwasong-15, it’s still very worrisome, because any violation of UN resolutions, any continued development moving towards operational deployment of an ICBM is worrisome.”
Regardless of what type of missile was fired, the fact remains that North Korean missile technology is improving, Ken Gause, Director of Strategy, Policy and plan
at the Virginia-based Center for Naval Analyses, told RFA.
They seem to operate better, but there’s still a ways to go,” he said, adding that North Korea has not yet conducted a successful reentry test for a launched ICBM.
“Even in failure you learn something,” he said. “[You] probably learn more from failure than success. Success just validates, but failure actually shows you where you have something you need to improve on.”
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