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N. Korea tests second ‘advanced’ missile in less than a week: Seoul

S.Korea's devaluation of last week‘s launch could provoke consecutive test-firings

South Korean citizens watch a TV news report on North Korea's launch of a ballistic missile at Seoul Station in central Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
South Korean citizens watch a TV news report on North Korea's launch of a ballistic missile at Seoul Station in central Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
North Korea on Tuesday test-fired an apparent ballistic missile from an inland area toward its east coast in its second weapons test in less than a week, while the South Korean military said the missile has “advanced” capabilities compared to the previous one.

The United States Forces Korea said it was “aware of the DPRK’s most recent ballistic missile launch and are consulting closely with our allies and partners” in a statement. DPRK refers to North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People‘s Republic of Korea.

The USFK’s assessment is that the missile launch “does not pose an immediate threat to US personnel or territory, or to the Republic of Korea,” adding that the US commitment to the defense of South Korea “remains ironclad.”

But South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the military “detected one projectile, which is presumed to be a ballistic missile, being fired from the Jagang Province area into the East Sea at around 07:27 a.m.”

Seoul’s initial evaluation shows that the projectile traveled at a top speed of around Mach 10 and at a maximum altitude of 60 kilometers.

The Rodong-type missiles fly at speeds of around Mach 9 or 10 and the Musudan-type missiles fly at the speed of Mach 14 or more in a boosting phase, but the missiles are not classified as a hypersonic missile.

Also, South Korea’s JCS said Tuesday’s missile flew more than 700 kilometers.

But there is a discrepancy in flight distance detected by the South Korean and Japanese authorities. Japan’s Defense Ministry said the projectile was possibly a ballistic missile, which would have flown less than 700 km if following the normal trajectory of a ballistic missile.

South Korea’s JCS declined to share further details and it said the South Korean and US intelligence authorities were analyzing further details, specifications, and characteristics of the missile test launch.

But the JCS assessed that the projectile was “an advanced one compared to the ballistic missile launched on Jan. 5.”

A military source on Tuesday additionally explained that Seoul made the evaluation based on detected specifications, including speed and flight distance, refusing to confirm the type of the ballistic missile.

The JCS reiterated that the South Korean military “has capabilities to detect and intercept the projectile and continues to strengthen the response system,” criticizing the successive missile launches.

“North Korea’s recent series of ballistic missile launches clearly violates the ‘UN Security Council resolutions,’” the JCS said. 

"We urge to immediately stop a launch given that it poses a significant threat to international peace and safety and it does not helpful in easing military tensions amid ongoing diplomatic efforts to establish peace on the Korean peninsula.”

The USFK denounced that the missile launch, saying it “highlights the destabilizing impact of the DPRK’s illicit weapons program.”

The presidential National Security Council immediately held a 50-minute emergency meeting Tuesday morning and expressed “strong regret” over the test, which came at a time when regional stability is extremely critical. 

Legitimizing missile tests
Tuesday’s launch came less than a week after North Korea on Jan. 5 test-fired what it claimed was a “hypersonic missile.”

Experts noted the test would simultaneously aim to fulfill domestic purposes and send messages mainly to South Korea and the US with the goal of raising the stakes for dialogue and increasing pressure on them.

Kim In-tae, a senior research fellow at the government-run Institute for National Security Strategy, said the test was in line with Pyongyang’s continued demands to withdraw the US’ “hostile policy” toward the county and “unequal double standards” against its military buildup, including its missile tests.

“Through the consecutive weapon tests, North Korea sends the message of urging South Korea and the US to withdraw the hostile policy and double standards and to change their attitude toward the country,” Kim told The Korea Herald. “Pyongyang puts pressure on Seoul and Washington.”

Notably, Tuesday’s missile test, which appears to be Pyongyang’s continuing attempt to legitimize its missile tests, came during the UN Security Council‘s closed-door meeting on North Korea’s missile test last week. 

Necessity to show ‘tangible’ achievements
“In respect to the domestic goal, North Korea shows intent to push ahead with the ruling party’s plan to bolster national defense capabilities as planned,” Kim In-tae said.

“Pyongyang needs to show tangible achievements in developing national defense capabilities in view of implementing the (five-year) plan at the Eight Party Congress and the party’s decision at the fourth plenum.”

At the recent fourth plenum, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un 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.

Experts also underscored that the Kim Jong-un regime needs to show substantial achievement in developing defense capabilities, noting the importance of this year filled with political anniversaries.

“North Korea needs to expeditiously show tangible outcomes in the defense field early this year to create a festive mood,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute. Cheong noted that Pyongyang propagates this year as the “year of revolutionary, auspicious occasions.”

He pointed to “crucial political events and anniversaries,” including the 80th anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s birth in February and the 110th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung in April. Also, the 10th anniversary of Kim Jong-un’s elevation to the top post of the party and now-defunct National Defense Commission which was the country’s highest governing agency.

Pyongyang also appears to strive to boost the morale of the North Korean people while the political burden and economic cost of two-year lockdown measures have grown.

“North Korea appears to pursue the expeditious advancement of missile capabilities with the intent to combat the fatigue of the people caused by the prolonged COVID-19 preventive measures and more actively mobilize the people to achieve the goal of the five-year plan,” Cheong said.

Unusually short interval
The track record shows that North Korea has conducted a series of weapons tests during winter military training that kicks off in December.

But Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, pointed out that such a short interval between the test-firings was still “unusual” if North Korea consecutively fired a “hypersonic missile” in less than a week.

Kim and Cheong commonly said the South Korean military’s response to last week’s missile test may have provoked another round of missile tests and backlash from Pyongyang.

South Korea last week played down North Korea’s missile test by clarifying that the launched projectile was a maneuverable reentry vehicle (MaRV) and dismissing the possibility of Pyongyang test-firing a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV).

"It is too early to tell. But if North Korea had conducted another round of test-firing a hypersonic missile (today), the country might refute the South Korean military’s belittlement and devaluation of the (previous week‘s) missile test and make aggressive and harsh remarks against Seoul through tomorrow’s state media report,” Kim Dong-yub told The Korea Herald.

Notably, the missile test came days after North Korea last week officially notified China that the country would not attend the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics in a letter, citing “hostile forces’ maneuvers” and the COVID-19 pandemic as hindrances.

Some analysts view that the US diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics and the participation of the US allies and partners could create an environment conducive for North Korea to conduct weapons tests drawing Beijing‘s acquiescence.

“China would have made North Korea refrain from (conducting weapons tests) if they were in a situation where they had to host the peaceful and successful Beijing Olympics,” Kim said.

“The Beijing Olympics could have served as a safety pin, but it no longer plays the role of the safety pin and has lost that meaning.” 

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