North Korea fired a short-range missile into the sea Tuesday at nearly the same moment its UN diplomat was decrying the US’s “hostile policy” against it, in an apparent return to its pattern of mixing weapons displays with peace overtures to wrest outside concessions.
The launch, its third round of weapons firings this month, came only three days after North Korea repeated its offer for conditional talks with South Korea. Some experts say the latest missile launch was likely meant to test how South Korea would respond, as North Korea needs Seoul to persuade Washington to ease economic sanctions and make other concessions.
In an emergency National Security Council meeting, the South Korean government expressed regret over what it called “a short-range missile launch” by the North. South Korea’s military earlier said the object fired from North Korea’s mountainous northern Jagang province flew toward the waters off the North’s eastern coast. Further details of the launch were being analyzed.
The US Indo-Pacific Command said the launch did not pose an immediate threat but highlighted “the destabilizing impact of (North Korea’s) illicit weapons program.” Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said North Korea fired “what could be a ballistic missile” and that his government stepped up its vigilance and surveillance.
A ballistic missile launch would violate a UN Security Council ban on North Korean ballistic activities, but the council typically does not impose new sanctions on North Korea for launches of short-range weapons.
The launch came after Kim Yo Jong, the influential sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, reached out to Seoul twice on Friday and Saturday, saying her country was open to resuming talks and reconciliatory steps if conditions are met. She criticized Seoul for calling Pyongyang’s previous missile tests a provocation and demanded it abandon “unfair double-dealing standards” and “hostile policies.”
Her overture followed the North’s two previous rounds of missile launches this month — the first one with a newly developed cruise missile and the other with a ballistic missile fired from a train, a new launch platform. Those launches demonstrated North Korea’s ability to attack targets in South Korea and Japan, both key US allies where 80,000 American troops are stationed.
Tuesday’s launch “was like testing the South Korean government to see if it would impose a double standard and call it a provocation,” said analyst Shin Beomchul with the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy. He said North Korea’s status as a nuclear state would be solidified if South Korea and others fail to respond strongly.
Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said North Korea might have tested a new missile such as a hypersonic glide vehicle that was among an array of high-tech weapons Kim Jong Un has vowed to procure.
South Korea has called Kim Yo Jong’s openness to talks “meaningful” but urged North Korea to restore communication channels before any talks between the rivals can be arranged.
The inter-Korean communication lines have remained largely dormant for about 15 months, so restoring them could be a yardstick to assess how serious the North is about its offer. Seoul’s Unification Ministry said Tuesday North Korea remains unresponsive to South Korea’s attempts to exchange messages over the channels.
At nearly the same time as Tuesday’s launch, North Korean Ambassador Kim Song used his speech on the last day of the UN General Assembly’s annual high-level meeting to justify his country’s development of a “war deterrent” to defend itself against US threats.
“The possible outbreak of a new war on the Korean Peninsula is contained not because of the US’s mercy on the DPRK, it is because our state is growing a reliable deterrent that can control the hostile forces in an attempted military invasion,” Kim said. DPRK refers to Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s official name.
Kim Yo Jong’s offer of conditional talks was a response to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s renewed calls for a political declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula in a technical state of war.
The three-year conflict pitted South Korea and US-led UN forces against North Korea and China and killed 1 million to 2 million people. In his own speech at the UN last week, Moon proposed the end-of-the-war declaration be signed between the two Koreas, the US and China.
After the North’s launch Tuesday, Moon ordered officials to examine its latest weapons firing and previous outreach in a comprehensive manner before formulating countermeasures, according to Moon’s office.
A US-led diplomatic effort aimed at convincing North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons in return for economic and political benefits has been stalled 2½ years. US officials have repeatedly expressed hopes for further talks but have also made it clear the long-term sanctions imposed on North Korea will stay in place until the North takes concrete steps toward denuclearization.
While North Korea has tested short-range weapons and vowed to continue building its nuclear arsenal, Kim Jong Un has maintained a moratorium on testing longer-range weapons capable of reaching the American homeland, an indication he wants to keep the chances for future diplomacy with the US alive.