GP Insights

GP Insights # 37, 12 May 2019

North Korea tests ballistic missiles: A warning in disguise?
Sourina Bej

What happened?

On 9 May two short-range ballistic missiles were launched by North Korea, confirmed the United States and South Korea official sources. The missile launched is identical to the one that North Korea had launched on 4 May which appeared to be a solid-fuel missile modelled after Russia’s Iskander short-range ballistic missile system that Moscow has often deployed in Syria and has been trying to sell. In addition, South Korea’s military said the Friday’s two missiles were launched from the town of Kusong in North Pyongan province, where North Korea conducted its first successful flight tests of its Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missile and Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile, both in 2017. At the time of the second launch, the US for the first time seized a North Korean shipping vessel carrying coal on the ground that it was violating American law and international sanctions. This move is certain to escalate tensions already on the brink.

What is the background?

The recent launch by North Korea marks the second time the country fired off a short-range missile in just under a week with the first launch breaking a moratorium agreed after the Hanoi summit in February. These latest launches came after two important meetings. Firstly, the US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun visit to the South Korea and second North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s visit to Moscow in the last week of April. With the similarity with Russian short-range missile, the current launch by Kim cannot ignore the help from Moscow. 

The launches are seen as a possible North Korean warning toward Washington over the deadlocked nuclear negotiations as the two sides continue to disagree on the terms of sanction reliefs and disarmament. The launch assumes significance in the backdrop of the meeting in February when Trump and Kim met in Hanoi trying to make a deal on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Even though the summit ended early after both sides made demands the other side couldn’t accept, North Korea had maintained a long month of no test with frequent news on reconstructing of nuclear sites. This missile tests could now result in more sanctions keeping in mind that North Korea’s so far unsuccessful push for large-scale sanctions relief is at the heart of the current diplomatic impasse with Washington.

What does it mean? 

North Korea has historically used weapons tests for two purposes: firstly, to gain military strength and second to use this acquired military strength for sending tactical message to the US and its allies like South Korea and Japan in the Korean peninsula. The current test is no exception to this strategy adopted by Kim. However, the reactions from the targeted countries have been varied. While the US and South Korea has downplayed the tests, Japan had been strong in its criticisms. Trump has stated that these short-range tests don’t essentially mean “a breach of trust at all," But this also means no one including the institutions in Washington is happy about the test. After the second test, Trump at the White House said, “I don’t think they’re ready to negotiate.” More than a message to the US, the tests were a consorted signal to South Korea highlighting Moon’s failure in securing the sanctions, moving out of the US umbrella and still proceeding with the joint economic projects that the inter-Korean summit had agreed on. The short-range missiles directly threaten South Korea but not the U.S. mainland or it's Pacific territories. This indicated Kim’s dual intention of signalling Moon and also testing how far Washington will tolerate its bellicosity without actually hampering the nuclear negotiations in the letter. Japan’s Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kotaro Nogami on 10 May has said that the tests were in violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions which bar North Korea from testing any ballistic missiles.

Neither of the recent tests jeopardises the country’s self-imposed moratorium on testing longer-range weapons that could target the continental US but it does warn that the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s patience with nuclear diplomacy and lifting of sanctions is slowly wearing thin.

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