N. Korea’s pressure campaign
Last week, North Korea launched an all-out pressure campaign on South Korea and the United States on three fronts: (1) a decision to tear down hotels and other tourist facilities at Mount Geumgang — all built with South Korean capital, (2) a diehard program for developing missiles and rocket launchers, and (3) a warning against U.S. complacency because of the good relations between its leader Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump.
Inter-Korean relations are at their lowest point since the start of the Moon government two-and-a-half years ago. Kim defies his predecessor’s policy of economic cooperation with the South. The outlook for nuclear talks with Washington does not bode well; and Pyongyang keeps threatening to return to tension on the peninsula.
On Oct. 31, the North again demonstrated its capability to continue developing new weapons, by firing two projectiles from a “super-large multiple rocket launcher” three minutes apart. They flew 370 km across the country at a height of up to 90 km before plunging into the East Sea. It was the 12th test of new weapons since May 4.
The North appears determined to develop its weapons as a deterrent and a threat to South Korea and U.S. forces in the region. The North is going its own way. It may believe that the issues of peace and denuclearization will not be resolved to its satisfaction.
The North has so far kept its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests. Kim has told Trump a couple of times that he will keep the moratorium. In return, Trump has played down the seriousness of short-range ballistic missile launches that violate U.N. resolutions, while South Korea only says such provocations are “not helpful to a peace process or denuclearization.”
North Korea’s sixth and last nuclear test was Sept. 3, 2017 and its last ICBM test was Nov. 29, the same year. Kim Jong-un announced in his New Year’s address for 2018 that his nuclear forces are “capable of thwarting and countering any nuclear threats from the United States.” On April 21, 2018, Kim suspended nuclear and missile tests with a statement that he will shut down the Punggye-ri nuclear test site.
The North’s short-range missiles and large multiple rocket launchers that can target all or most areas of the South clearly pose “a very grave threat” to the security of South Korea, contrary to the Nov. 1 testimony by Seoul’s national security advisor Chung Eui-yong before the National Assembly.
However, Chung’s testimony as a whole was telling: The North should think hard before it decides to attack Seoul with those weapons. The South has an effective missile defense system and a strong alliance with the U.S. The South spends much more money on defense and tests more missiles than the North. The South plans to acquire more modern weapons to cope with a changing security environment.
Experts believe the North needs more tests to fine-tune its nuclear warheads and ICBMs, if they were to become a real threat to the United States. Seoul’s national security advisor said that the North is not able to launch an ICBM from a TEL (Transporter Erector Launcher). He added that the North, therefore, will not be able to launch ICBMs once its launch site is closed.
Pundits argue that the North’s provocations aim at gaining negotiating leverage and to press the U.S. to make more concessions. But, that is not Pyongyang’s primary objective for developing weapons. In diplomacy and domestic politics, the regime places the highest priority on safeguarding its sovereign system, whether the outside world condones it or not.
Pyongyang’s latest multiple rocket launcher’s test came after it must have concluded that Washington was reluctant to accept “a new method of calculation.” And the end-of-year deadline that was set by Kim was nearing before any meaningful talks might resume.
On Oct. 27, Kim Yong-chol, chairman of the Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, who once was the point man in nuclear talks with the U.S. issued a belligerent statement, reflecting Pyongyang’s raging discontent with the U.S.: “The U.S. intention is to isolate and stifle the DPRK in a more crafty and vicious way than before … belligerent relations still persist that there can be the exchange of fire any moment.” His warning: “The U.S. is seriously mistaken if it thinks it can pass peacefully over the end of this year, by exploiting the close personal relations between its president and Chairman Kim for delaying tactics.”
The North is well known for harsh rhetoric and bluffing. To keep the moratorium on ICBM and nuclear tests is the minimum requirement to end the stalemate in the nuclear talks.