[News analysis] N. Korea fires missile in show of force over joint S. Korea-US military drills

Posted on : 2022-09-26 17:43 KST Modified on : 2022-09-26 17:43 KST
A difference in tone could be felt in the responses of South Korea and the US to the North’s missile launch
The nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier arrives in the southeastern port city of Busan on Sept. 23. (Yonhap)
The nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier arrives in the southeastern port city of Busan on Sept. 23. (Yonhap)

The ballistic missile North Korea launched on Sunday was a short-range missile that flew approximately 600 km (370 miles) and reached an altitude of 60 km and a speed of Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound.

The missile’s characteristics indicate that the launch was a North Korean show of force aimed at checking the joint South Korea-US maritime exercise scheduled to take place in the East Sea, while refraining from excessively provoking the US. US Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to South Korea scheduled for Thursday may also have been a consideration.

The North’s missile launch took place the day before South Korea and the US kicked off their joint naval drill. The US aircraft carrier strike group, composed of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) and Aegis-equipped missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52), arrived in Busan on Friday and is set to train with the South Korean Navy from Monday through Thursday in the East Sea.

This is the first South Korea-US joint maritime exercise involving a US carrier to take place near the Korean Peninsula in about five years, the last being in November 2017 following a series of nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests by the North.

Contrary to some claims that North Korea launched the missile with the intent to target the US aircraft carrier or other naval vessels in the East Sea, the fired missile turned out to be a ground-to-ground ballistic missile meant to target objects on land rather than an anti-ship missile used to target maritime objects, such as carriers.

A difference in tone could be felt in the responses of South Korea and the US to North Korea’s missile launch. While the US Indo-Pacific Command stressed that “US commitments to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan remain ironclad” in a statement issued after the launch, it also concluded that “this event does not pose an immediate threat to US personnel or territory, or to our allies.”

Indeed, from the viewpoint of the US, short-range ballistic missiles fired by North Korea from land are not strategic weapons as significant as submarine-launched ballistic missiles, which are regarded as “game changers,” or ICBMs that threaten the US mainland.

By contrast, South Korea held an emergency meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) standing committee on Sunday, presided over by National Security Office Director Kim Sung-han. The meeting noted that this was the North’s first ballistic missile launch since Sept. 8, when the country adopted a new law outlining its nuclear weapon policy in which it officially endorsed the preemptive use of tactical nuclear weapons.

The urgency of the meeting stemmed from the fact that the short-range missile, while unable to reach the US mainland, can still easily reach South Korea and carry a payload of tactical nuclear weapons. In fact, the South Korean military has been concerned about the possibility of North Korea equipping missiles with nuclear warheads ever since the country first test-fired the KN-23 in 2019.

The unique flight trajectory of the recently fired missile is reportedly similar to that of the KN-23, considered a North Korean version of the Iskander ballistic missile. The Iskander, developed by Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is difficult to intercept due to its irregular up and down movements during the descent phase, unlike regular ballistic missiles that rise and fall in a predictable parabolic trajectory.

North Korea’s most recent missile also exhibited similar characteristics during certain sections of descent, moving up and down in “pull-up” maneuvers. The South Korean military insists, however, that its recently developed medium-range surface-to-air missile (M-SAM) Cheongung-II and the Patriot (PAC-3) are fully capable of intercepting such missiles.

The military is also paying close attention to the possibility of further military action by North Korea.

“Given North Korea’s overall activities, this should be regarded as weapons development or a test launch that’s part of the longer process of strengthening military capabilities on orders from Kim Jong-un,” said one source in the South Korean military.

“That’s also why we’re bearing in mind the possibility of more North Korean provocations,” the source explained.

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter; Bae Ji-hyun, staff reporter

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

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