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NK projectile raises stakes for talks, ratchets up pressure

N. Korea fires suspected ballistic missile toward east coast, JCS says

North Korea on Wednesday fires what appears to be a ballistic missile toward the East Sea. (Yonhap)
North Korea on Wednesday fires what appears to be a ballistic missile toward the East Sea. (Yonhap)
North Korea on Wednesday fired what could be a ballistic missile from an inland area into the East Sea, days after leader Kim Jong-un urged to further defense capabilities and reviewed key policy directions.

“Our military detected one (short-range) projectile, which is presumed to be a ballistic missile, being fired from the Jagang Province area in North Korea into the East Sea today (Jan. 5) at around 08:10 a.m.,” South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.

But the JCS said the South Korean and US intelligence authorities are analyzing further details and specifications of the missile test launch, without further details including apogee and travel distance.

“Our military has maintained readiness posture in preparation for additional launches while closely monitoring the situation in close coordination between South Korea and the US,” the JCS added.

Japan’s Defense Ministry said what appeared to be a ballistic missile had flown about 500 km before landing in waters outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

“Both ROK and Japanese authorities alerted the public, so it went high enough to be caught on radar. And a single test like this is usually a developmental test as opposed to an exercise involving deployed missile forces,” Joshua Pollack, senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies told The Korea Herald.

“It could be some kind of ballistic missile, or perhaps the second test of the boost-glide weapon introduced last year,” Pollack said. 

Pyongyang’s intent to bolster defense capabilities
Wednesday’s launch came 78 days after North Korea test-fired a new type of submarine-launched ballistic missile from a 2,000-ton Gorae-class submarine on Oct. 19.

But this is Pyongyang’s first weapons test this year, which experts view as a sign of its determination to push forward the development of national defense capabilities as planned.

The first show of force is noteworthy given that Pyongyang on Saturday announced North Korea’s policy direction for the new year as the outcome of the five-day fourth plenum.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un notably urged the country to further bolster its national defense capabilities “without a moment’s delay,” citing the volatile security environment on the Korean Peninsula and unstable international situation as the main reasons.

Pollack said North Korea’s test-launch is “not entirely surprising,” pointing to Kim Jong-un’s remarks at the party plenum and Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ commentary in November, which “insisted on missile testing as part of their inherent right of self-defense.”

Echoing the view, Cho Han-bum, senior research fellow at the Korean Institute for National Unification, noted the importance of Wednesday’s test-launch in the sense that short-range ballistic missiles can carry tactical nuclear weapons. Kim urged the development of tactical nuclear weapons at the 8th Party Congress last January.

“The test-launch of a short-range ballistic missile has significance as a means to simultaneously pursue strengthening national defense capabilities and enhance nuclear capabilities,” Cho told The Korea Herald, adding Pyongyang could claim the missile test was a legitimate part of its regular winter military training.

Raise stakes for dialogue
The South Korean military on Wednesday said it was analyzing North Korea’s intent behind the latest test-launch during a meeting of the National Assembly Defense Committee.

“We are examining on whether (North Korea) has any political intention to send out an external message through the missile launch while there was no message to South Korea and the US at a party plenary which replaces (Kim Jong-un)’s New Year’s Speech,” South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook said.

Experts shared the view that the latest test-launch shows North Korea’s intent to pursue its original hard-line approach vis-a-vis Seoul and Washington.

Experts said the Kim Jong-un regime seeks to raise the stakes for dialogue and ratchet up the pressure on South Korea and the US. At the same time, the country is tactically refraining from making high-profile provocations in the runup to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, the March 9 South Korean presidential election, and the US midterm elections.

“North Korea seeks to demonstrate its presence through a low-key provocation,” Cho said, taking note of the risks of high-profile provocations including the test-launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile at this juncture.

“Pyongyang also capitalizes on the test-launch as a means to put pressure on South Korea and the US,” he explained, adding that the aim is to force the two countries to make a move to accept North Korea’s preconditions for dialogue such as the withdrawal of the “hostile policy” and “double standards.“

Shin Beom-chul, director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, pointed out the test-firing shows clearly where Pyongyang stands.

There are mixed views on the absence of an announcement on foreign policy directions and North Korea’s wait-and-see approach at its fourth party plenum.

“The brief mention could be seen as a conciliatory gesture from Pyongyang, but the test-launch suggests that North Korea’s stance has not changed,” Shin told The Korea Herald. 

“The slim chance of declaring an end to the Korean War gets slimmer given that North Korea is not expected to shift its stance and lower the bar (for a declaration).”

In his policy speech, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in September said the withdrawal of the US “hostile policy” and “unequal double standards” against North Korea’s military buildup, including its missile tests, should precede an end-of-war declaration.

Shin went on to say that the test-firing would also be a “warning signal” that Pyongyang could make more high-tier provocations if there are no further concessions from the US.

Soo Kim, a policy analyst at the Rand Corp. and a former CIA analyst, said the response from Seoul and Washington to these provocations “would in turn shape North Korea’s next steps.”

But the analyst pointed out the necessity for the US and South Korea to re-calibrate their approach to North Korea, in light of the country’s periodic weapons testing and repeated saber-rattling to gain the upper hand.

“Kim (Jong-un) has so far been gaining a greater advantage in this nuclear tug-of-war. We should remind ourselves that in this push-pull interaction, the competitive edge comes not only from power, but also from a keen understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent,” she said.

“Kim seems to have sized up the US quite well. Previous responses to North Korea’s provocations have only played into its hands – so maybe it’s time to reassess our approach?”

By Ji Da-gyum (dagyumji@heraldcorp.com)
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