North Korea’s test firing of two ballistic missiles Wednesday, which coincided with three other major regional security events, is an attempt by Pyongyang to grab international attention, analysts told RFA.
The launches happened on the same day as a South Korean ballistic missile test of its own, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s diplomatic visit to South Korea, and envoys from Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo meeting in Japan to discuss strategies to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table over its nuclear and missile programs.
According to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, the North Korean missiles were fired from an inland location after 12:30 p.m. and traveled 800 kilometers (497 miles), reaching a maximum altitude of 60 kilometers (37 miles). The missiles touched down in waters east of the Korean peninsula. They were the North’s first ballistic missile tests since March.
The ballistic missile tests came two days after North Korea successfully tested a new cruise missile system, which would give it the capability to hit most of Japan with the low-flying cruise missiles.
The U.S. condemned the North Korean launch in a statement that called it a violation of several UN Security Council Resolutions and a threat to North Korea’s neighbors and the international community. The statement did not mention the South Korean launch.
Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga described the North Korean tests as “outrageous” and said they threatened regional peace and security.
Wang Yi on Wednesday told reporters when asked about Monday’s cruise missile tests that concerned parties must work toward a peaceful and stable Korean peninsula.
“Not only North Korea but other countries are also carrying out military activity,” he said.
The U.S. and UN have invoked sanctions on North Korea over the denuclearization issue. Pyongyang wants sanctions relief, while Washington wants complete denuclearization, which North Korea is seemingly unwilling to give.
Overreactions to North Korean missile tests only help Pyongyang, Soo Kim of the California-based RAND Corporation told RFA’s Korean Service Wednesday.
“It would serve the U.S. and the international community’s interest to not hype North Korean provocations, as doing so would give Pyongyang the undue attention that it seeks,” she said.
“Quickly rushing to address the nuclear and missile threats may only be playing into North Korea’s hands,” Soo Kim said.
Jessica Lee of the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft meanwhile told RFA that the situation on the Korean peninsula is a “ticking bomb.”
“President Biden squandered his early days in office to open up new channels for diplomacy on the Peninsula. Now he’s scrambling to catch up in the midst of a crisis,” she said.
“Wednesday’s dual ballistic missile test in the North and submarine-launched ballistic missile test in the South illustrate the urgent need for diplomacy,” said Lee.
Lee also said that more than 40 U.S. civil society organizations have called for the administration to suspend broad-based sanctions that hurt innocent North Koreans.
“A more flexible sanctions regime that is linked to progress in denuclearization, or other types of threat reduction steps such as eliminating North Korea’s chemical weapons, would provide a critical off-ramp from the current situation,” she said.
Offering Pyongyang more concessions to return to negotiations would be a mistake, however, Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation told RFA.
“We don’t need to buy our way back to dialogue. We announce that we are open to dialogue. We are eager for negotiations. But once again it’s North Korea that’s refusing dialogue,” Klingner said.
“As North Korea ratchets up additional provocations … they’re trying to show that they’re negotiating from a position of strength – that even with the sanctions and the COVID restrictions they’ve imposed on themselves and the economic problems they’re having, that they’re still tough, that they aren’t going to give in to the U.S.,” Klingner said.
Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a Korea expert at King’s College London, told RFA that the ballistic and cruise missile launches were a response to joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea weeks ago.
“Statements coming out from Pyongyang when the exercises started pointed out to these tests, as a way for North Korea to show that it can deter the U.S. and South Korea,” he said.
“Regarding Washington’s response, I think that its hands are tied. China and Russia aren’t going to agree to a new round of sanctions, and the U.S. has actually been calling for talks in recent weeks,” he said.
The launches show that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ignores the suffering of his people as he pours resources into nuclear and missile programs, Anthony Ruggiero of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) told RFA.
“North Korea will continue these tests to increase pressure on Biden to conclude a limited nuclear deal and provide sanctions relief. President Biden should respond by increasing sanctions and diplomatic pressure to address these programs,” he said.
Ken Gause of the Virginia-based CNA think tank advised against new sanctions as a response to North Korean missile launches.
“If the U.S. and UN did manage to pass some sort of sanctions in response to the missile launch, they would be watered down, and nobody would pay much attention to them. So, it would be a symbolic act. But again, it gets in the way of your diplomacy,” said Gause.
Gause said the timing of the tests were a message to China:
“‘Hey, you need to pay attention to North Korea. You can’t just go to South Korea.’”
“They get very jealous when China plays one off against the other… The North Koreans will say ‘Look, we’re your ally, we are your partner over here. Don’t forget about us,’” Gause said.
Reported by Soyoung Kim, Kyung Ha Rhee, Dukin Han, Hye Jun Seo and Yong Jae Mok for RFA’s Korean Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.