[News analysis] Why did N. Korea launch a missile amid strides in peace process?

Posted on : 2021-10-20 17:20 KST Modified on : 2021-10-22 10:58 KST
The Blue House expressed “deep regret” at the North’s eighth missile launch this year, and seems to be confused as to why it came amid talks of an end-of-war declaration
A news report on North Korea’s launch of a short-range ballistic missile plays on a monitor in Seoul Station on Tuesday afternoon. (Yonhap News)
A news report on North Korea’s launch of a short-range ballistic missile plays on a monitor in Seoul Station on Tuesday afternoon. (Yonhap News)

North Korea’s launch of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on Tuesday has fueled speculation over the intent and background of the action.

At a time when neighboring countries have moved to strengthen cooperation with the North to advance President Moon Jae-in’s proposal to formally end the Korean War, one view sees the test as a show of force serving demanding that the US acts first to relax sanctions on Pyongyang.

What appears to be a new SLBM

The short-range ballistic missile launched by the North on Tuesday is presumed to be a new miniaturized SLBM recently unveiled at the defense development exhibition “Self-Defense 2021” in Pyongyang. Military authorities said the projectile flew for 590 km at an altitude of 60 km.

On Oct. 2, 2019, the North test-fired its Pukguksong-3 missile from an underwater barge; the missile’s flight range was 450 km. Because of its elevated altitude of 910 km due to the high angle at launch, the Pukguksong-3’s true range was estimated at 2,500 km — long enough to hit US military bases in Guam. The SLBM launched on Tuesday, however, appeared to have a much lower altitude and a shorter range than the one fired two years ago.

Military authorities are reportedly analyzing the possibility that the SLBM was fired from a submarine in operation, unlike the two launched from an underwater barge in 2016 and 2019. Because the North’s subs are relatively small in scale, analysts said the missile might have been miniaturized.

Dual strategy of internal unity and easing sanctions

The North’s behavior has elicited a variety of analyses by experts. First, Pyongyang seems to want to bolster internal unity by implementing its five-year plan for strengthening national defense announced in January at the eighth Workers’ Party of Korea Congress. At the time, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called the development of a nuclear submarine with long-range strike capability and an SLBM with a nuclear warhead necessary for strengthening North Korea’s national defense capacity.

Some consider this launch a "military action" to increase the North's bargaining power with the US, which has stressed "unconditional dialogue." The missile launch also seemed timed to coincide with the trilateral meeting in Seoul among National Intelligence Service Director Park Jie-won, US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and Hiroaki Takizawa, Japan’s cabinet intelligence director. Meanwhile in Washington, talks among the top nuclear envoys of South Korea, the US and Japan — Noh Kyu-duk, Sung Kim, and Takehiro Funakoshi, respectively — were underway Monday and Tuesday.

Blue House expresses “deep regret,” remains cautious

The Blue House expressed “deep regret” at an emergency meeting of the standing committee of the National Security Council (NSC) chaired by Office of National Security Director Suh Hoon in the immediate wake of the North’s missile launch. Because the missile is presumed to be an SLBM described as a short-range ballistic missile, however, the presidential office refrained from using expressions such as “provocation” or “threat.”

This attitude shows Seoul’s apparent awareness of the “double-dealing standard” Pyongyang accused it of last month. In a speech at the defense exhibition on Oct. 11, Kim Jong-un lambasted Seoul by saying that South Korea is “now using the words provocation and threat as terminologies exclusive to the north.”

South Korea’s careful diction is thus being interpreted as an effort to avoid provoking North Korea and maintain momentum in the peace process that has been making progress since President Moon proposed an end-of-war declaration.

The North’s missile launch, however, has prompted criticism of Pyongyang for increasing tension and unrest on the peninsula at a time when peaceful and stable management of the region is of crucial importance.

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter

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

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