In downplaying the security threats posed by North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction program, President Moon Jae-in’s administration is going too far in what critics see as an illusory pursuit of inter-Korean reconciliation. The North on Thursday test-fired two short-range ballistic missiles after launching two cruise missiles four days earlier.
South Korea’s military was slow and passive in responding to the North’s latest provocative acts. Initially it described the missiles as “unidentified projectiles,” while the Japanese government and foreign news media were quick to confirm they were ballistic missiles. Even after referring to them as ballistic missiles, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff still avoided commenting on whether their launch violated UN Security Council resolutions banning the recalcitrant regime from testing any type of ballistic missile.
South Korea’s military had also kept silent on North Korea’s cruise missile launch until foreign news media reported on it Wednesday.
Seoul’s reluctance to react to Pyongyang’s latest provocations became more inexcusable Friday, when the North’s state-run news agency confirmed that it had test-fired new tactical guided missiles that could be tipped with heavier warheads.
Experts say they believe the North test-fired an advanced version of its KN-23 missile, modeled after Russia’s Iskander missile. Rather than following a general parabolic trajectory, the missile takes a more complicated path, doing a pull-up maneuver during the course of its flight. With a flight range of up to 600 kilometers, it is designed mainly to strike targets in South Korea.
What is particularly worrisome is that the solid-fueled missile, which can be prepared for launch in 10-15 minutes, may be tipped with tactical nuclear arms whose development North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered early this year.
The lukewarm response of the South Korean military to the first ballistic missile launch by the North in about a year seems to be part of the Moon administration’s blind pursuit of its peace agenda for the peninsula. With his five-year tenure set to end in May next year, Moon appears to be hoping to hold yet another meeting with Kim to reaffirm their 2018 declarations on inter-Korean reconciliation and set them on the path toward implementation.
Ties between the two Koreas remain stalled since a 2019 summit in Hanoi between Kim and then-US President Donald Trump ended without a deal on the North’s denuclearization. The Moon administration has tried in vain to revive its peace agenda by taking a string of actions to pander to Pyongyang, including scaling down South Korea’s joint military drills with the US and introducing legislation to punish North Korean defectors and their supporters here for flying anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border into the North.
In a speech Friday, Moon refrained from issuing any warning to the North regarding its latest ballistic missile launch. He just said “actions causing difficulty for the mood for dialogue are undesirable,” stressing that now is the time for the two Koreas and the US to try to pick up their talks.
By contrast, US President Joe Biden on Thursday warned of “responses” if North Korea were to escalate tensions. In his first news conference since taking office Jan. 20, Biden made it clear that the North’s ballistic missile test was in violation of at least one UN Security Council resolution. He said diplomacy was still possible despite Pyongyang’s latest provocation, but “has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization.”
Biden’s firm reaction was certainly disappointing, though not dismaying, for the North, which appeared to have timed its first serious provocation in a year shortly before Biden’s maiden press conference as president.
In response to Biden’s warning, Ri Pyong-chol, vice chairman of the Central Committee of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, said in a statement that the US could face “something that is not good” if such “thoughtless remarks” continued. There is a chance that Pyongyang will initiate more serious provocations, such as test-firing a new submarine-launched ballistic missile or intercontinental ballistic missile as early as next month, after the outcome of the Biden administration’s review of policy approaches to the North is unveiled. US national security adviser Jake Sullivan will meet with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts in Washington later this week to put the finishing touches on the review.
The Moon administration would be well advised to prevent its single-eyed adherence to a peace agenda from hampering work to consolidate a joint stance with the US and Japan against ever-evolving military threats from the North.