2017 has been a year of immense progress for North Korea’s missile and nuclear program. Pyongyang has fired 22 missiles over 15 tests since February of this year, and it has improved its missile delivery technology with each test. In only the past six years, since Kim Jong Un took over as leader of North Korea, he has already tested more missiles than either his father or grandfather—with his father testing 16 missiles and grandfather testing 15 missiles.
In response to North Korea’s latest nuclear and missile tests in September, South Korea strengthened deployment of the controversial Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system, and conducted live fire drills. Japan collaborated with US firms to build new missile defense radars, and called North Korea’s missile launches a “serious act of provocation.” The United States publicly stated that it was considering “all options” over North Korea missile launches. China has even voiced opposition to North Korea’s missile launches, though it does not do much more than that.
After North Korea’s sixth nuclear test on September 3, 2017, President Tsai called a national security meeting at the Presidential Office to include then-Premier Lin Chuan (林全), Chief of the General Staff Lee Hsi-ming (李喜明), Deputy Foreign Minister Paul Chang (章文樑), National Security Bureau Director-General Peng Sheng-chu (彭勝竹) and Mainland Affairs Council Minister Chang Hsiao-yueh (張小月). Tsai publicly condemned North Korea for its actions, and urged Pyongyang to cease any moves that could undermine security in the region. My previous Global Taiwan Brief article discussed Taiwan’s tough economic sanctions toward North Korea.
However, in terms of security preparations, when asked during a Legislative Yuan (LY) session on March 3, 2017, about missile defense in the context of North Korea, a senior Taiwan official said that Taiwan “should not be involved in other nations’ war or make pointless sacrifices in conflicts between two global powers.”
In contrast with other countries in the region, it may be puzzling that Taiwan is seemingly not as responsive toward North Korea’s missile threats. One opinion piece featured in the popular, Hong Kong-based Apple Daily even mentions seven reasons why Taiwan should establish formal diplomatic relations with North Korea. Reasons given included: gaining North Korea as an additional diplomatic ally, as Taiwan’s diplomatic partners dwindle; gaining access to valuable energy sources from North Korea; securing North Korea’s help in manufacturing Taiwan’s indigenous submarines; obtaining North Korea’s help in rocketry; acquiring opportunities for Taiwan’s fishermen to fish near North Korea, and other non-compelling reasons eclipsed by the potential threat that North Korea poses to Taiwan, as it is already a cooperative partner of the United States. Another Chinese-language article goes so far as to argue that North Korea is a potential friend of Taiwan.
Taiwan’s apparent ambivalence toward North Korea is unusual, since its actions mean a great deal to Taiwan’s neighbors in the Northeast Asia region—specifically South Korea, Japan, and China. South Korea is on the front lines of the North Korean threat, while Japan and Taiwan both sitting within range of its missiles. Yet Taiwan does not display signs of worry over the threat, even though it would be well within North Korea’s missile range or in the middle of any conflict should tensions escalate. It is as if Taiwan thinks it will be safe as long as it keeps a low profile.
Perhaps Taiwan thinks it is not in North Korea’s crosshairs and therefore is safe, or would be safe as long as it does not get involved. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are a legitimate option for self defense “in the face of a clear and real nuclear threat posed by the US.” The statement went on to say that other countries were not being threatened unless they joined the US in a military attack. Still, Taiwan should be more prepared because, even if North Korea does not intend to target Taiwan, it is dangerous for North Korea to develop even the capability to do so. Intentions can change overnight, and Taiwan may feel safe one day but be at risk the next.
The first question of how Taiwan should respond depends on whether there is really a heightened danger of war. The past two months featured extensive back and forth between Trump and Kim, which made the situation seem very dangerous. But US actions are often tempered by experienced US military leaders. Though the president and many of his political operatives are less experienced on military affairs, thankfully they would need to convince very experienced military leaders to take such drastic action. National Security Advisor, retired General McMaster; Defense Secretary, retired General Mattis, and even National Security Council Asia Director, Marines Reserves Lieutenant Colonel Pottinger would all weigh in before the US would decide to take military action against North Korea. These experienced individuals would bring their knowledge of the sobering realities of military action to bear on the decision-making process, and would likely persuade the White House to take more time and explore more options before deciding on such action.
A second question is what steps Taiwan could take in response to the growing North Korea missile and nuclear threat. Like it has with South Korea and Japan, North Korea could drive Taiwan to add additional layers of defense against incoming missiles. With missile defense, it is important to have a layered defense, ensuring many opportunities to intercept an incoming missile; and to Taiwan’s credit, it already has a good missile defense system in its Patriot PAC-3 missiles. With more layers of defense, a country can take more shots at an incoming missile, which would make it safer in the event of an incoming missile attack.
Retired General Chip Gregson stated at the GTI annual symposium that the US should consider providing theater missile defense interceptors such as Standard Missile 3 (SM3) or Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems—with a longer range than Patriot missiles—to Taiwan in the future. Taiwan currently does not have missile systems that have a significant exo-atmospheric range, whereas Japan has SM3 missiles in its Aegis destroyers and Korea famously has THAAD. If Taiwan faces a greater missile threat then it should consider adding extra layers of defense in the future.
This issue becomes more complicated because China is very concerned about growing missile defense in Asia. Gregson made a sharp comment at the same GTI symposium, along the lines that he found it disappointing that China cares more about new interceptor missiles in the region than nuclear missile attacks on US allies in the region. Hopefully, comments like this will lead China to try harder to influence and restrain North Korea, since the growing threat from North Korea is driving its neighbors to seek greater ballistic missile defense capabilities.
While Taiwan should be applauded for having taken strong economic measures against North Korea, Taipei’s relatively muted security reaction to North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests is puzzling, since its regional neighbors are growing increasingly alarmed, and arming with interceptor missiles to protect themselves from the threat. Over time, North Korea’s further provocations will likely provide impetus and justification for Taiwan to improve its defense capabilities—especially in the areas of layered missile defense—in spite of protests from Beijing against ballistic missile defense in the Asia region.
The main point: A review of the latest Chinese and English news sources reveals that the North Korean nuclear missile threat has not significantly alarmed Taiwan’s leadership and populace, which is surprising, since countries around Taiwan are growing increasingly concerned. However, Taiwan’s growing recognition of the North Korean nuclear missile threat could shift Taiwan’s force posture in the direction of adding additional layers of defense against the possibility of an incoming missile attack.