North Korea goes ballistic again

For the fifth time in two weeks, Pyongyang had tested an increasingly sophisticated short-range missile system, which can wipe out South Korean and Japanese cities.

Background

The North Korean nuclear program has been a source of disquiet for both the US and the international community for decades. In 2017, President Trump had remarked that North Korea "will be met with fire and the fury like the world has never seen." North Korea responded by announcing that plans were underway to launch an ICBM to strike Guam, a US territory. Both Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump were locked in an extended war of words in 2017, both indicating an impending conflict.

2018 saw a volte-face in the relation between the two countries as Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un met in Singapore for the first bilateral summit. The Singapore summit was soon followed by the Vietnam Summit in February 2019 but no concrete agreement was achieved.

Analysis 

North Korea carried its most recent missile tests immediately after the United States and South Korea embarked on a new joint military exercise, known as Dong Maeng. Held for the first time, Dong Maeng substitutes the larger-scale Foal Eagle, and Key Resolve springtime exercises that the allies have executed previously. Kim described it as an infraction of a guarantee given by US. President Donald Trump and further remarked that the drills "seriously rattled" Pyongyang. The testing of short-range conventional missiles not only boosts the morale of the South Korean forces but satisfies hard-liners that Kim will indeed pursue a new way if the United States fails to ease sanctions.  Negotiations between the two countries have remained sluggish, and North Korea has strongly criticized Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton for cajoling Trump to adhere to the maximalist position. Pyongyang has insisted that Pompeo be excluded from the consultations. The missile tests have signalled that North Korea can turn up the tide quickly if a deal fizzles out—and there will be no diplomatic off-ramp. In effect, Pyongyang has taken a "maximum pressure" approach of its own. South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missiles were fired from the coastal town of Wonsan and travelled about 430 kilometers (270 miles) and 690 kilometers (430 miles), respectively, before landing off the country's east coast.

It is quite clear that North Korea is peeved over Seoul's purchase of U.S.-made high-tech fighter jets and the military drills that the North believes are rehearsals for an invasion and suggestive of the allies' hostility to Pyongyang.

A South Korean defence official has said that initial analysis showed that both missiles were fired from mobile launchers and flew at a maximum altitude of 50 kilometres (30 miles). North Korea further claimed that the weapons had "rapid anti-firepower capability" and "low-altitude" gliding and leaping flight orbit ... which would be hard to intercept. "North Korea is proscribed by UN Security Council resolutions from any launch using ballistic technology. North Korea could face international condemnation over the latest launches. However, it's unlikely that the nation, already under 11 rounds of UN sanctions, will be hit with fresh retaliatory measures. The UN council had typically included new sanctions only when the North conducted long-range ballistic launches and not when they have fired short-range ballistic missiles.

Researchers at the Far Eastern Studies in Korea said the latest missiles could be Scud-C ballistic missiles or KN-23 surface-to-surface missiles, a North Korean version of the Iskander.

Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative, censured a new missile test by North Korea, saying the country's actions violated DPRK's international obligations, as laid down in UN Security Council Resolutions and presented a serious hazard to global peace and security.

Counterpoint 

The US President has disregarded the North Korean rhetoric, saying that the standoff referred to South Korea and not the United States. He has said in the past that he has "no problem "with North Korea testing short-range missiles, insisting that they are not a threat to the United States. "My relationship with Kim is very good. We will see what happens", Trump said.

Assessment

  • North Korea believes that its diplomacy with the US is not advancing in a way that benefits them. The missiles were likely to have been fired with the intent to posture and get the US back to the negotiating table.
  • Pyongyang would like to take advantage of Trump's preoccupation with cost-sharing between the allies and South Korea's deteriorating relations with Japan. Kim's appeal to Trump directly about the exercises is perhaps indicative of an attempt to create a wedge between Washington and Seoul.
  • Pyongyang wants comprehensive sanctions relief so it can quickly revive its debilitated economy.
  • The latest US-South Korean drills are aimed in part at testing South Korea’s ability to take operational control from the US during wartime.
  • The risks in this more accommodative stance from the US president, is that he might be ceding ground which may encourage Kim to cross the US red line on nuclear testing.
  • Trump has been so vocal and complimentary of Kim and his own diplomatic 'success' that he may have painted himself into a corner.

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Image Courtesy: cbsnews.com

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