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[Editorial] Measured provocations

North Korea attempts to raise tensions without violating sanctions

North Korea test-fired a new type of long-range cruise missile over the weekend in yet another move to bolster its leverage for a deal with the US.

The tests, conducted Saturday and Sunday, saw the missiles travel for 7,580 seconds in the air above the North’s territorial land and waters and hit targets 1,500 kilometers away, according to the communist state’s official Korean Central News Agency.

Coming right after a scaled-down military parade in Pyongyang, the test-firing is seen as a low-level provocation intended to pressure the US without violating UN sanctions imposed on the recalcitrant regime to curb its nuclear arms and ballistic missile development programs. Cruise missiles are not subject to the sanctions.

Ballistic missiles carry bigger and more powerful payloads, have a much longer range and fly faster than cruise missiles. But cruise missiles are still threatening as they follow a relatively straight trajectory at low altitudes, making them harder to detect. South Korea’s military seems to have failed to detect the cruise missiles until the North announced the news Monday.

Pyongyang has continued to upgrade its cruise missiles, making them smaller and possibly compatible with submarines. A miniaturized nuclear warhead could be placed on one, as the North is believed to be on the verge of acquiring the technology.

The US Indo-Pacific Command said in a release that the latest tests threatened the region and the international community.

Pyongyang’s latest saber-rattling comes amid new indications that the North has reactivated a key nuclear complex capable of producing plutonium, a fissile material used to make nuclear bombs. The North suspended the operation of the aging Yongbyon complex in 2018. Then, at the 2019 summit between then-US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, Kim sought significant sanctions relief from Washington in return for dismantling it. Trump rejected his proposal.

While committing itself to diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang, the administration of Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, is determined to make no significant concessions until the isolated regime takes substantial steps toward complete denuclearization.

The latest missile launch might serve to strengthen the case for keeping sanctions in place, as it suggests the North is still capable of developing weapons despite food shortages and an economic crisis exacerbated by the pandemic.

The North may face a dilemma over its future course of action if the Biden administration remains unaffected by its recent attempts to pressure Washington to agree to a nuclear deal on the North’s terms.

It could go on to more serious provocations, such as the firing of long-range ballistic missiles. But the impoverished regime, mired in a growing economic predicament, might not be ready to endure toughened sanctions from the international community. Above all, a provocation like that would risk angering China, its only ally and main benefactor, which does not want the regional situation to worsen before the Beijing Winter Olympics kick off in early February.

It is notable that the North conducted its latest missile test right before Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Seoul and consultations in Tokyo among top nuclear negotiators from South Korea, the US and Japan.

During his two-day stay here, which started Tuesday, Wang is expected to stress the need to ease sanctions as a way to draw the North to the negotiating table. Furthermore, he is likely to call on Seoul not to go against Beijing’s interests by aligning itself with Washington’s efforts to counter China’s increasing assertiveness and influence.

South Korea has been more active than the US and Japan in resuming talks with the North, having provided more humanitarian assistance to the impoverished state. The outreach is spurred on by President Moon Jae-in’s eagerness to make progress in his peace initiative for the peninsula before he leaves office in May. He is expected to reiterate his determination to carry the peace process forward during his trip to New York next week to attend the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly.

The Moon administration’s preoccupation with inter-Korean reconciliation has led it to downplay or keep mum about the North’s recent provocative moves. But it should not turn a blind eye to growing threats from Pyongyang’s ever-evolving military capabilities. Eventually, a firm and principled stance might prove more instrumental in ensuring sincere talks and lasting peace with the regime.

By Korea Herald (koreaherald@heraldcorp.com)
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