North Korea's failed attempt to launch the Unha-3, a new three-stage long-range ballistic missile, is for obvious reasons welcome. More than anything else it demonstrates limits to the DPRK's technical prowess. And it means that the United States and the world have more time before they must contend with the possibility that the world's most closed and militarized country has the capacity to launch missiles, conceivably with nuclear warheads, across great distances.
But any sigh of relief must be tempered. First, the fact that the test took place at all in the face of widespread international opposition demonstrates North Korea's ability to defy external pressure and isolation. It also means that China, the country with the most influence over North Korea, is still unwilling to use that influence in a decisive manner.
Second, North Korea remains a serious military threat. It still possesses as many as a dozen nuclear warheads, proven short-range missiles, and a formidable conventional fighting force. It is as much an army with a country as vice-versa.
Third and perhaps most immediate, the test's failure constitutes a humiliating setback for the country's new leader, Kim Jong-un. It is likely that a principal reason for the launch was to signal his emergence and consolidate his authority. There is thus a real risk that he will turn to a tried and true path to accomplish the same ends.
If history is any guide, this suggests that a test of a nuclear warhead or some sort of aggressive military action -- for example, an artillery strike -- against South Korea could be in the offing. And if this latter scenario occurs, South Korea, unlike on previous occasions, is almost certain to retaliate. And if this happens, escalation and a serious armed clash on the Korean Peninsula, territory where the United States, China, Japan, and others all have vital interests, could well materialize. This last outpost of the Cold War, ignored or forgotten by many, retains the potential to constitute a major threat to post-Cold War international order.
Cross-posted from the Council on Foreign Relations.