Confirmation that North Korea will attempt to launch an experimental "satellite", possibly as early as this week, heightens political tensions in Asia and reminds us that ballistic missile proliferation remains a key strategic concern for the region. But suggestions that neighbouring countries will use missile defence systems to shoot down the Unha-3 "rocket" are misguided and unrealistic.
Although Japan has deployed Aegis-equipped air-warfare destroyers to the East China Sea, and PAC-3 ground-based missile defence systems in Tokyo and Okinawa, the likelihood of an interception is low. Both are tactical or theatre-based systems. Neither is likely to shoot down a three-stage rocket once it has left the earth's atmosphere. And a boost-phase strike, hitting the missile as it leaves the launch pad, would be an act of war. The missile defence systems will become more important if debris from the test begins to fall near Japan or the Philippines as some analysts predict.
The last time the North Koreans attempted to launch a communications satellite was in April 2009, and that rocket also looked remarkably like a Taepo Dong 2 ballistic missile. The test failed miserably, but the first stage did fall into the Sea of Japan, and other rocket stages and the payload fell into the Pacific Ocean. The task of striking falling debris is likely to defeat the current capabilities of the missile defence systems available, but it is worth demonstrating to the North Koreans that the era of passive defence towards missile tests is over.
A prudential assessment of this latest piece of theatre would see Pyongyang's actions for exactly what they are: the desperate attempt of a failing, dynastic regime to bolster the credentials of its newest leader, Kim Jong-un, and to get the Obama administration focused on the one political prize the North Koreans have always wanted -- a bilateral security deal with the US. The test will not achieve either goal, but that won't stop the generals in North Korea from pressing ahead on both the nuclear and missile programs.
The test simply repeats the pattern of provocation and propaganda that has been the hallmark of North Korea's strategic behaviour for the past 20 years. And there are secondary commercial incentives as well: North Korea remains a supplier of missile parts to other rogue nuclear regimes such as Iran.
Perhaps most importantly, North Korea's behaviour is a test for Beijing's stated desire to create a "harmonious world". As chair of the six-party talks, China has, on occasion, demonstrated a greater willingness to push Pyongyang in the direction of denuclearisation within China's orbit. But the recent inability to force North Korea back to the negotiating table or to extract significant concessions on the missile and nuclear programs suggests that China's influence is limited and waning.
A resumption of the six-party talks will be necessary. But the cycle of diplomacy and belligerency must end. Finding a way to contain North Korea and to denuclearise the peninsula is the real challenge for Chinese foreign policy.
According to some official reports, North Korea may also be preparing for another nuclear test. And this represents a far more dangerous security scenario for the region.
Following previous tests in both 2006 and 2009, the results of which were somewhat ambiguous, North Korea has continued to produce fissile material from its Yongbyong facility. Pyongyang has now produced enough plutonium for about 20 nuclear weapons. And the reprocessing plant can make another one or two bombs a year. The issue that remains unclear is whether the North Koreans will be able to marry a nuclear weapon to a ballistic missile. The only way to do that is through further testing.
Since the 1970s, successive Australian governments have invested considerable diplomatic resources in promoting the nuclear non-proliferation regime. In the face of these latest threats from North Korea, we now have a clear interest in providing greater strategic reassurance to the region through international arms control mechanisms.
But arms control remains in a state of self-inflicted paralysis. The UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva has not negotiated a single new treaty for more than 20 years. Political differences between and within the major powers continue to stymie progress.
Australia can give effect to its declared leadership role as a "creative middle power" by prioritising negotiations towards a treaty which would ban the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons and finalise the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. Neither will be easy. Both require Canberra to be a more forceful advocate for arms control with both the US congress and the Chinese government. But, together, these remaining pieces of the arms control agenda will further isolate the North Korean regime and strengthen the normative barriers to proliferation.