GP Insights # 124, 17 August 2019
In a continuation to the tension in the Korean peninsula, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on 16 August issued a public statement denigrating the South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Rejecting the idea of a dialogue with Seoul, Kim launched two missiles into the sea after that. In a volley of rattling, Kim responded to Moon’s Liberation Day speech and said ‘his open talk about ‘dialogue’ between the north and the south under such situation raises a question as to whether Moon has proper thinking faculty.” Pyongyang added that “Moon is, indeed, an impudent guy rare to be found.”
This has come as another blow to Moon’s dream towards a unified Korea, when he spoke on the Liberation Day (15 August). Moon aims to “solidify denuclearization” of North Korea, initiate a “peace economy” and unify the Korean Peninsula by 2045.
What is the background?
Kim’s missile launch is the sixth missile during the last three weeks. His coarse statement bordering on mockery of the South Korean President was a reaction to the Dong Maeng military exercises between South Korea and the US on 25 July. North Korea’s interpretation of these exercises as a “rehearsal for war” follows a long process of attempted dialogues, broken summits and surprise visits. The missiles were fired on 16 August and flew for 140 miles.
North Korea has launched a series of missile tests in quick succession since the military drills. These come after the collapse of talks between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump in February at Hanoi.
What does it mean?
Since the abrupt end to the Hanoi summit and a visit of Trump to DMZ in North Korea post the G-20 summit, the tension with North Korea had increased.
Along with the missile tests, Kim has outrightly brandished Moon Jae thereby nibbling any form of bonhomie that might have grown between the two leaders since last year.
Washington has so far downplayed the tests and has ignored the threat posed by the new missiles to South Korea and its neighbours. The US National Security Advisor John Bolton said: “The firing of these missiles doesn’t violate the pledge that Kim Jong-un made to the president about intercontinental-range ballistic missiles." However, Bolton also criticized the diplomatic process towards denuclearisation that was slated to start on June 30. While North Korea has not closed the door to dialogue with the US either, its anger has deepened. Equally important are Trump’s tweets on the missile tests and the military exercises. Trump was seen defending Pyongyang’s right to test missiles and even indicated his opposition to the military exercises because he believes they cost the United States too much. There appears a difference of opinion between the different institutions in the US.
South Korea’s position needs exploration. Security analysts have concluded that Kim has used the tests to significantly improve its ability to attack South Korea and penetrate its missile defence shield. In particular, its KN-23 missile is designed to fly fast and low, making it particularly tough to detect and intercept. Because it is launched from a truck, KN-23 appears to mimic a Russian-built missile with a capacity to penetrate the US defence systems.
Given the military advancements achieved by North Korea, earlier this week, South Korea’s military unveiled a plan to build new warships and develop precision-guided weapons. This plan should not be seen in isolation of the US security umbrella that is slowly thinning as Trump has been reluctant to provide for denuclearisation talks.
Also, Moon’s dream of an integrated Korean economy is deterred further by US sanctions throwing the country into negative economic growth. South Korea’s relation with Japan has seen its all-time low over the forced labour issue, pulling most of the Japanese company and money with themselves out of the country. In this situation, the military drills were a strategic position reiterated with the US, but North Korea’s statement will wheel back the advances in the relationship between the two Koreas.