North Korean Missile Launches Unite Allies
US, western partners tire of Pyongyang’s rocket-rattling
By: Shim Jae Hoon
North Korea is again on a pressure campaign, trying to break out of the sustained sanctions regime that is choking its moribund economy. With its state revenue sources trickling down from shortages of normal export income, its 25 million populace is again facing the likelihood of widespread hunger.
“Kim doesn’t have the luxury of sitting and doing nothing,” said Rhee Young Il, a former three-term legislator of the National Assembly and an expert on North Korea. “What else can he do besides make more trouble?”
Indeed, North Korea has virtually no option other than making more trouble although it does have a formidable potential for trouble-making – high-level missile technology and nuclear bombs. It has already extracted billions of dollars worth of economic aid and other gifts without the slightest concessions. This time, according to many analysts here, it may be asking a much higher price – getting the Biden administration to accept it as a bona fide nuclear state, next to countries like India and Pakistan.
Such a concession, according to competent North Korea watchers, is crucial for the country’s escape from its present status as an international pariah. Such respectability would not only relegate South Korea into a new Quisling state resembling South Vietnam before its fall; it could lead to the next step of demanding negotiations for the withdrawal of American troops from the South, opening the door for North Korea to reunify the country under its lead.
This is not just a pipe dream imagined by pessimists in Seoul. In one of his letters exchanged with former US president Donald Trump, with whom Kim met three times to talk about denuclearization, Kim indicated all further talks with Trump be held exclusively between the two without allowing Seoul to participate. Trump almost agreed, asking South Korean President Moon Jae In at the time of Trump’s meeting with Kim at Panmunjom, to stay out of their parley.
Kim this time is putting pressure on the Biden administration by parading his missile capability. In little over 10 months, the North has fired more than 50 missiles, claiming this was in response to US-South Korean joint military exercises, held for the first time in five years. Of course, short- and medium-range missiles have been fired before this field exercise, some landing south of the maritime demarcation line.
On November 3, an ICBM-type missile was fired towards the east in the direction of Japan, prompting emergency sirens to alert Japanese cities and urging people to take shelter. Another medium-range missile also landed near the east coast South Korean island of Ullung, forcing residents to take shelter.
These provocations have come against the backdrop of rising global security concerns caused by Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine and China’s hardening military pressure against Taiwan. With its recent export of artillery shells to Russia for shipment to Ukraine, and secret shipments of missiles to Middle East problem countries like Syria and Iran, North Korea has become a significant trouble-maker in the global security landscape.
Pyongyang’s missile campaign reached a new height in October and November this year with the US and South Korea restarting joint military exercises for the first time in five years. The US moved the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan to the North’s eastern sea while US strategic stealth bombers like B1Bs and B2s participated in aerial exercises called Vigilant Storm. Altogether, 200-odd South Korean and US aircraft including fighters and bombers have participated in these exercises, clearly frightening North Korean leadership.
Officials in Seoul and Washington remain acutely concerned about the rapidly advancing missile technology of the North. Since producing and deploying its first Taepodong-class medium-range missiles capable of hitting almost all targets in South Korea in 1998, the Kim regime has advanced to the stage of producing Hwasong-15 and Hwasong-17 class intercontinental missiles capable of reaching Hawaii.
Taking much of credit for this quick and focused advance is of course Kim Jong Un, the 38-year-old dictator who 12 years ago took the helm from his father Kim Jong Il. According to defense specialists here, Kim junior is credited with developing six of nine missile prototypes including five types of long-range and intercontinental-class missiles. His role in nuclear bomb production is also said to be decisive.
Defense experts say Kim Jong Un was responsible for four of six underground nuclear tests so far, with his late father taking credit for only two tests. A chief concern of defense experts here and in Washington is that Kim is now into developing strategic miniature nuclear bombs that can withstand the heat of ICBM missiles flying to their distant targets. Numerous propaganda photos from Pyongyang show a chubby-faced Kim Jong Un lovingly staring at a ball-shaped bomb said to be of nuclear type.
For North Korean strategic planners, developing missiles and nukes makes good economic sense. Its conventional arms are no match for South Korea’s sophisticated armament industry hardware which today is making significant inroads into the international armaments market. The North’s air force, consisting mostly of Soviet and Chinese handouts, is considered so inferior that they seldom make an appearance. They are considered no match for South Korean air force’s electronic-fitted F-35A, F-15, KF-16 supersonic fighters.
By contrast, South Korea’s missile capability has long been a laughingstock of the country’s armaments industry. Its representative medium-range Hyunmoo surface-to-surface missile, with a 300-kilometer range, recently shamed the nation by ratcheting backward instead of flying upward. An embarrassed military establishment had to publicly apologize for its disastrous performance in the midst of a national crisis stemming from the North Korean missile crisis.
Within military establishment circles, the deplorable quality of South Korean missile technology is blamed on the US-imposed Missile Technology Control Regime, placing limits on the development of local missile technology. Although this control regime was recently relaxed, politicians say alliance partner US is responsible for poor local acquisition and development.
Politically, however, the North’s recent missile campaign has had some constructive implications. US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on November 8 warned North Korea against escalating its provocations, saying the North's repeated firings of ballistic missiles and artillery in recent weeks were provocative military actions. North Korea has described them as practice runs for the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
“This is deeply irresponsible, dangerous, and destabilizing,” Sherman said in talks in Tokyo with South Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Hyundong.
Random missile firings have confirmed Pyongyang’s image as a global threat to peace. They have confirmed the US ally as the global policeman capable of simultaneously ensuring peace in Asia as well as in Europe. Pyongyang’s highly risky and unpredictable behavior has had beneficial effects of bringing East Asia’s two ancient foes – Japan and Korea – together in a common stand. Last week, South Korean navy vessels participated in the Japanese Navy’s Fleet Review ceremony. The two countries have also begun sharing intelligence on North Korea.