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N. Korea’s First Ballistic Missile Launch since Biden’s Inauguration

#Issues l 2021-04-01

Korea, Today and Tomorrow

ⓒ KBS

On March 25, North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the East Sea from the Hamju area, South Hamgyong Province. The next day, the North’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper said that the country test-fired new tactical guided missiles that can deliver a 2.5-ton warhead, using core technology of an already developed missile. It also said that the two missiles flew 600 kilometers into the East Sea to strike the exact test target. Here’s political commentator Choi Young-il to explain the missiles in more detail. 


It is assumed that the missiles fired by North Korea last week are new ballistic missiles unveiled during a military parade after the eighth congress of the Workers’ Party in January. The missiles are presumed to be an improved version of North Korea’s KN-23 missile, which is similar to Russia’s Iskander ballistic missile, considering the projectiles’ flight range and maximum altitude. The missiles capable of carrying a warhead weighing up to 2.5 tons confirm the reliability of an upgraded solid fuel engine. Also, the missiles flying as far as 600 kilometers put South Korea within their range. Although they are called short-range missiles, compared to intercontinental ballistic missiles or intermediate-range missiles, they could still be highly dangerous during a local war. 


Media agencies around the world quickly reported North Korea’s ballistic missile launch. AFP underlined that North Korea fired the missiles while the Biden administration is looking to complete a policy review on North Korea. The New York Times said that North Korea is resorting again to a show of force, raising tensions to gain leverage as the Biden administration finalizes its North Korea policy review. According to the British newspaper, The Guardian, North Korea’s projectile launch came amid the deadlock in its denuclearization talks with the U.S. 


North Korea’s military provocations are politically motivated in most cases. The recent case can be understood in the same context. North Korea has typically launched armed provocations in a strategic move to draw attention from the U.S. during the early days of U.S. presidents. North Korea fired two cruise missiles on March 21. Although the cruise missile launch does not violate U.N. Security Council resolutions, analysts speculated that North Korea was ready to make provocations. 


Four days later, right before Biden’s first press conference since taking office, Pyongyang launched two short-range ballistic missiles. North Korea probably wanted to show off its strong military capabilities—strong enough to confront the U.S.—and to ask the U.S. to accept its demand. The missile launch is aimed at delivering this message to the U.S. 


In Biden’s first press conference as president on March 25, hours after North Korea fired ballistic missiles, the U.S. president said that North Korea’s ballistic missile launch was a violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution. Biden downplayed Pyongyang’s earlier cruise missile launch, regarding it as a typical military drill. But he responded firmly to North Korea’s ballistic missile test. 


Biden made it clear that U.N. Resolution 1718 was violated by ballistic missiles that were tested by North Korea. Resolution 1718 was adopted by the U.N. Security Council in 2006, shortly after North Korea’s first nuclear test. It bans North Korea from conducting nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches.  


Biden did leave room for dialogue, though, saying that he is prepared for some form of diplomacy with North Korea. But he added that diplomacy has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization. While North Korea demands that the U.S. withdraw its hostile policy toward the North, the U.S. calls for North Korea’s complete denuclearization. Now that Biden has warned that the U.S. will respond accordingly if North Korea chooses to escalate tensions, attention turns to North Korea’s next moves. 


North Korea has been moving fast to criticize the U.S. On March 27, Ri Pyong-chol, vice chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, refuted the American president’s remarks that North Korea’s ballistic missile launch is a violation of a U.N. resolution. Ri claimed that North Korea’s missile launch was an act of exercising the right to self-defense as a sovereign state. 


On March 29, Jo Chol-su, director-general of the Department of International Organizations at North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, accused the U.N. Security Council of double standards for convening a closed-door meeting of its sanctions committee. The following day, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong criticized South Korean President Moon Jae-in for expressing concerns over North Korea’s missile launch. Analysts believe that North Korea is attempting to justify its armed provocations on the pretext of self-defense by releasing a series of statements. 


But leader Kim Jong-un has not announced any message about the recent ballistic missile test. A day after the test, North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported the leader’s inspection of a construction site for apartments and a new passenger bus on its front page, while carrying the article of the missile launch on the second page. This is rather different from the leader’s typical attitude in the past, when he would announce a message toward the outside world after provocations. 


No doubt, Kim’s inspection of economy-related sites is intentional. It shows that the leader’s top priority this year is placed on the economy, not on the military. While officials like Kim Yo-jong and First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui have issued strongly-worded statements condemning South Korea or the U.S., the leader himself has not added any comment to those statements. I think North Korea considers the position of the U.S., which remains open to diplomacy with the North. If Kim Jong-un publicly declares hostile relations with the U.S. or advocates his country’s armed provocations, North Korea might have no way out. By refraining from expressing his position now, Kim leaves room for improving relations with the U.S. 


The White House has said that President Biden isn’t planning talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. When asked if Biden’s diplomatic approach to North Korea would include a meeting with Kim during a press briefing on Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that she thinks Biden’s approach would be quite different. 


Jen Psaki’s remarks show that former president Donald Trump’s top-down nuclear diplomacy with North Korea will not continue under the Biden government. But it doesn’t mean that the U.S. will not engage in dialogue with the North. Rather, Biden’s approach will be different from Trump’s when dealing with the communist regime. I imagine the U.S. will complete the diplomatic lineup in charge of East Asia and the Pacific region this summer. But it seems a war of nerves between North Korea and the U.S. has already started, with Pyongyang releasing aggressive statements and making provocations. We’ll have to see how the tug-of-war between the two countries will unfold until summer. 


The Biden government’s North Korean policy review is almost finished, and national security advisors of South Korea, the U.S. and Japan and foreign ministers of the three countries are expected to hold talks. There are concerns that North Korea may step up its armed provocations on the occasion of the birthday of its founder Kim Il-sung on April 15. With various political events scheduled to take place, the month of April could be an important turning point in regional diplomacy. 

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