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N. Korea resumes building up tensions as it awaits US move

North Korea launches a surface-to-ship cruise missile on June 9, 2017. (Rodong Sinmun)
North Korea launches a surface-to-ship cruise missile on June 9, 2017. (Rodong Sinmun)
North Korea’s missile launches Sunday marks its return to a fresh cycle of provocations to earn sanctions relief from the new US administration, experts said.

On Wednesday, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff confirmed that the North fired two cruise missiles into the West Sea on Sunday, without elaborating on details. Senior administration officials from both Korea and the US said the North did not violate the UN Security Council resolutions.

“It is not covered by UN Security Council resolutions,” the senior US official said, noting the resolutions deter the North from pursuing ballistic missiles, and not cruise missiles.

“It is a normal part of the kind of testing that North Korea would do,” the official said, adding the US was still open to dialogue with the North. They have not talked to each other since October 2019, when they failed to narrow differences over which steps to take first between sanctions relief and denuclearization.

North Korean watchers said the Pyongyang is seeking to gradually turn up the heat on Washington for concessions while making sure not to jeopardize pushing the US too far so as to leave with it no choice but to enforce bigger sanctions.

“The Sunday launches followed through on the previous fiery rhetoric by Kim Yo-jong and Choe Son-hui, as expected,” said Choi Kang, acting president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank in Seoul.

Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, slammed the joint drills South Korea and the US held a week ago, while Choe, the first vice foreign minister, declared that the North would no longer engage the US in talks, despite Washington’s behind-the-scenes outreach since February.

Choi said Pyongyang would gradually ratchet up provocations until it sees Washington’s new North Korea policy and will change its strategy -- for better or worse -- depending on what approach is rolled out. The policy review is reportedly in its final stages.

Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute, said North Korea had no choice but to stick to lesser missiles for another reason.

“The North needs China and Russia more than ever, when Seoul, Washington and Japan are locked in trilateral cooperation,” Cheong said. The top US envoy and defense chief visited Korea and Japan the previous week to expand ties and discuss their North Korea policy.

Pyongyang’s ballistic missiles would have upset Beijing because that opens room for the US to launch more diplomatic and rhetorical broadsides at China for not doing enough what it could to rein in North Korea’s aggression. Russia would have neither backed the North, Cheong added.

Experts agreed that the North’s latest launches would not immediately affect the US administration’s policy review on Pyongyang, but said they could rally some behind an approach that prefers sanctions to dialogue, rather than a parallel pursuit of both.

The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said he would look at both sanctions and dialogue.

“It’s hard for the US to push dialogue way over sanctions at the moment, especially when we see the situation isn’t that inviting,” said Shin Beom-chul, director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.

Shin suspected whether US and Korea are perfectly on the same page on North Korea, as they often claim to be, referring to how Sunday’s launches had made headlines there first. South Korea’s military confirmed the news later.

“We do not publicly respond to every kind of test,” a senior US official said. A senior South Korean military official also said the military does not disclose its findings every time it picks up new intelligence, adding the military had been aware of the test and is looking into the incident.

But the Korean official did not answer whether Seoul and Washington had decided not to reveal the latest development.

By Choi Si-young (