N. Korea’s missile launches parallel those in March. But why?

Posted on : 2021-09-16 17:17 KST Modified on : 2021-09-16 17:17 KST
This week’s missile launches seem to follow the familiar pattern of those six months ago, but key differences could tell us more about North Korea’s intentions with the tests
A photo provided on March 26 by Rodong Sinmun and the Korean Central News Agency, saying that North Korea’s Academy of National Defense Science had test-fired a new type of tactical guided missile on March 25. (KCNA/Yonhap News)
A photo provided on March 26 by Rodong Sinmun and the Korean Central News Agency, saying that North Korea’s Academy of National Defense Science had test-fired a new type of tactical guided missile on March 25. (KCNA/Yonhap News)

North Korea’s test launches of two short-range missiles Wednesday three days after launches of a “new type of long-range cruise missile” over the weekend are reminiscent of its activities in March of this year.

The North test-launched two cruise missiles and two ballistic missiles in the space of four days on March 21 and 25, respectively. Six months later, it appeared to be repeating the same pattern.

The UN Security Council (UNSC) prohibits North Korea from conducting any launches that use “ballistic missile technology.” Accordingly, while cruise missile launches are not considered to be in violation of UNSC resolutions, ballistic missile launches are, regardless of type.

To date, the US has not called for convening the UNSC in connection with intermediate-range ballistic missile test launches by North Korea, as opposed to long-range missiles such as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). It amounts to tacit consent, where the US doesn’t pursue any practical response beyond verbal criticism.

In that sense, the two short-range ballistic missiles fired by North Korea toward the East Sea from the Yangdok area in South Pyongan Province on Wednesday are unlikely to be the sort of military action that becomes an inflection point in terms of qualitative changes in the political situation on the Korean Peninsula.

According to University of North Korean Studies professor Kim Dong-yup, the North’s ballistic missile test launch on March 25 could have been intended from a military technology standpoint for performance adjustments and supplementation for the “improved North Korean Iskander,” which it has called a “new type of tactical guided weapon.”

Also worth noting is the fact that the ballistic missile test launch came at a time when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in Seoul to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Minister of Foreign Affairs Chung Eui-yong.

If it was a deliberate decision, that suggests it would have to be interpreted from multiple angles as a message to South Korea, the US and China. Whatever Pyongyang’s intentions are, it’s not a situation that China wants.

Another notable fact about the ballistic missile test launch is that it was led and observed by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Kim was not present to observe the test launches on March 25 and Sept. 11–12, which were officially confirmed and announced by the North. Whether Kim observed a test launch or not can say a lot about its relative military and diplomatic weight.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

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

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