S. Korea’s strategic position squeezed by Ukraine crisis, N. Korean missile tests

Posted on : 2022-02-28 17:20 KST Modified on : 2022-02-28 17:20 KST
The North’s most recent show of force appears aimed at using the world’s focus on Ukraine as a way to improve its bargaining position with Washington
This undated file photo shows a North Korean missile launch. (KCNA/Yonhap News)
This undated file photo shows a North Korean missile launch. (KCNA/Yonhap News)

North Korea’s first ballistic missile test in roughly a month came at a sensitive time for politics both in South Korea and abroad, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine underway and the South Korean presidential election just around the corner.

The missile launch was North Korea’s eighth such show of force this year. After seven ballistic and cruise missile tests last month, the North had abstained from launching any missiles during the Beijing Winter Olympics, which ran from Feb. 4 to 20.

As the North Korea variable is once again factored into an already unstable political situation at home and overseas, the South faces a mounting burden while it wrestles with how to maintain peace on the peninsula.

The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff announced Sunday that it had “detected a ballistic missile launched over the East Sea from the vicinity of Sunan in Pyongyang, North Korea, at around 7:52 am.”

“The missile flew for approximately 300 kilometers and was detected at an altitude of 620 kilometers,” the Joint Chiefs added.

In the past, Pyongyang’s decisions on when to test missiles and other weapons have reflected not only the testing process for weapon development but also calculations concerning relations with Washington and Seoul.

The Winter Olympics drew to a close on Feb. 20, and war is now raging in Ukraine. Some analysts are suggesting that with the attention of the US and the rest of the international community recently focused on the conflict in Ukraine, Pyongyang’s aim is to redirect some of that attention to North Korean issues.

In other words, renewed missile launches by the North would force the US into having to respond simultaneously to Russia and North Korea, which could potentially improve the latter’s bargaining position with Washington.

The US response to the latest missile test was subdued.

The US Indo-Pacific Command, which includes the Korean Peninsula in its operational scope, issued a statement on the latest North Korean ballistic missile launch in which it said the US “condemns this launch and calls on the DPRK to refrain from further destabilizing acts.”

“While we have assessed that this event does not pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel, territory, or that of our allies, we will continue to monitor the situation,” it continued. This echoed the same official position that US authorities have typically presented when North Korea’s launches have not involved the kind of intermediate- to long-range missiles that would pose a direct threat to US security.

The same morning, the Blue House convened an emergency meeting of its National Security Council (NSC) standing committee under Suh Hoon, who directs the National Security Office.

“At a time when the whole world is focusing on resolving the war in Ukraine, it is by no means desirable for peace and stability in the world and region or on the peninsula for North Korea to launch ballistic missiles,” the NSC stated. It also expressed “profound concern and stringent regret” over the North Korean ballistic missile test launch.

The Blue House also expressed “regret” and “concern” when North Korea tested short-range missiles last month and “condemnation” in response to its intermediate-range ballistic missile test on Jan. 30. This means that the position expressed by the NSC on Sunday was stronger than its response to the short-range missile launches last month and milder than its response to the intermediate-range missile launch.

Attendees of the NSC meeting stressed the importance of “protecting our security without any disruption whatsoever to our important political calendar.” The message was that the situation with North Korea should not be allowed to influence the outcome of the presidential election, which is only 10 days away.

Some are voicing concerns that if the North carries on with military activities such as large-scale parades and missile testing, it stands to not only raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula but also narrow the South’s strategic options concerning the war in Ukraine.

The greater the emphasis on South Korean and US coordination on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles becomes, the more actively South Korea is obliged to take part in sanctions against Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine.

South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Chung Eui-yong explained that he had a telephone conversation Saturday with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during which the two “discussed our shared place to respond to Russia’s systematic and unjustifiable attack on Ukraine.” Seoul signaled that while it would not be imposing its own independent sanctions, it would take part in international ones.

But despite the alignment in their official position, South Korea and the US differ in their internal assessments of sanctions on Russia.

Some experts in South Korea and overseas have predicted that the war in Ukraine could usher in a full-scale “new Cold War” entailing a confrontation between Russia on one side and the US and Europe on the other, forcing the rest of the world to decide which side to fall in line with.

Seoul’s judgment is that this kind of Cold War “bloc” scenario would not be beneficial to its national interests. Unlike the US or Europe, South Korea has to cooperate closely with Russia for the sake of peace on the Korean Peninsula — a situation that accounts for the subtle discrepancy in its attitude toward sanctions on Russia in comparison with the US.

Commenting on the Russia sanctions issue in a Saturday interview with a YouTube personality, US President Joe Biden said Russia would pay a price “not only in Europe but in the Pacific, [in] Japan, South Korea, and Australia.”

Some analysts interpreted this as an indirect expression of Biden’s position that Seoul will need to take part more proactively in sanctions against Russia.

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles