Crisis looms on Korean Peninsula as S. Korea gets ready for its next president

Posted on : 2022-03-25 16:26 KST Modified on : 2022-03-25 16:46 KST
The ICBM test conducted on Thursday and the resulting end of North Korea’s moratorium seriously threaten Korean peace agreements
A U-2S high-altitude reconnaissance plane takes off from Osan Air Base on March 24, the same day that North Korea test-fired a long-range ballistic missile that was presumed to be an intercontinental ballistic missile into the East Sea. (Yonhap News)
A U-2S high-altitude reconnaissance plane takes off from Osan Air Base on March 24, the same day that North Korea test-fired a long-range ballistic missile that was presumed to be an intercontinental ballistic missile into the East Sea. (Yonhap News)

The peace clock on the Korean Peninsula is rapidly turning backwards, bringing the region back to a crisis period similar to that of 2017.

North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on March 24 from Pyongyang’s Sunan airfield. The test comes 1577 days (4 years, 3 months and 23 days) since its last ICBM test on Nov. 29, 2017, and Kim Jong-un’s declaration that his country had achieved full nuclear capability.

The Blue House responded to the test by stating that North Korea had broken its moratorium on launching ICBMs, a promise it had made to the international community.

The end of North Korea’s moratorium on ICBM testing has put peace on the Korean Peninsula — which has been strengthened since 2018 through agreements like the Panmunjom Declaration with South Korea and the Singapore Joint Statement with the US — in a precarious state.

Back in April 2018, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had declared a halt to nuclear and ICBM testing during a speech he gave at the Third Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea. After this, summits took place with both South Korea and the US, during which Kim agreed to work together towards achieving the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, to establish a “new relationship” with the US, and to build a permanent and stable peace regime.

However, the ICBM test conducted on Thursday and the resulting end of North Korea’s moratorium seriously threaten the very foundations of these agreements.

North Korea says its recent ballistic missile tests are “important tests” for the development of reconnaissance (spy) satellites. However, such tests violate UN Security Council Resolution 1874 (2009), which prohibits any launch using ballistic missile technology.

In addition, the UN Security Council introduced a “trigger clause” in Resolution 2087 (2013) that allows the council to automatically convene meetings and impose additional sanctions when the North tests nuclear weapons or test-launches ICBMs.

US and South Korean officials held a phone call shortly after the North’s test on Thursday, pledging a united response from the international community, including measures at the level of the UN Security Council.

Moreover, the combined military exercises between the US and South Korea are scheduled for mid-to-late April. South Korean and US government authorities and experts have predicted that North Korea is highly likely to test-launch an ICBM, framing it as the launch of a “reconnaissance satellite,” around Apr. 15, which marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung (called the Day of the Sun in North Korea).

There is an increasingly high possibility that the Korean Peninsula will fall further into crisis between March and May due to the combination of the South Korean presidential transition, North Korea’s military actions, and the upcoming joint military drills between South Korea and the US.

“The situation on the Korean Peninsula is returning to the period of the summer of 2017,” one veteran in the field of unification, diplomacy and security said, adding that “the situation may turn out worse than it was at that time.”

In the summer of 2017, the North launched the Hwasong-14 ICBM (July 4 and July 28) and the Hwasong-12 (Aug. 29 and Sept. 15) one after another and then went on to carry out its sixth nuclear test on Sept. 3.

The UN Security Council has banned North Korea's exports of coal, textiles and clothing products and introduced export restrictions on crude and refined oil.

North Korea’s provocations that summer led to a strong reaction from then-US president Donald Trump, who threatened North Korea on Aug. 8, saying they “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” The next day, a North Korean military spokesperson responded by threatening to target Guam by creating an “enveloping fire” around the US island. That was followed up by Kim Jong-un’s 2018 New Year address, in which he stated that his “nuclear button” was always on his desk.

For these reasons, the summer of 2017 is often referred to as the period when the two Koreas were closest to war since the actual Korean War first broke out in 1950.

Many analysts believe that North Korea’s recent military actions, including this ICBM test, are based on Kim Jong-un’s belief that he “cannot wait any longer.”

“The US hostile policy and military threat have reached a critical level that cannot be tolerated any longer,” Kim Jong-un said at a meeting of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea this past January 19. He gave instructions for all trust-building measures towards the US to be “reexamined” and to promptly examine the option of restarting all temporarily suspended activities, hinting at his intention to end the moratorium on ballistic missile and nuclear weapon testing.

Despite all those signs, however, Washington has remained relatively silent. US President Joe Biden failed to mention North Korea even one time in his State of the Union address on March 1. Even though the new US president has poured diplomatic resources into withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and reinstating the Iran nuclear deal, he has failed to engage with North Korea aside from diplomatic rhetoric signaling that “the door for dialogue is open.”

Yet no real action has been taken. This means that North Korea is clearly not a top priority for the current US administration.

“Kim Jong-un has already taken action, but both the US and South Korean governments are unable to come up with effective diplomatic solutions due to their own problems,” a former high-ranking government official said. “If South Korea and the US cannot find a diplomatic solution to stabilize the situation, we cannot rule out the possibility that North Korea will launch additional intercontinental ballistic missiles and conduct additional nuclear tests.”

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

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

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