Missile, drills, missile, drills: Korean Peninsula stuck in endless tit-for-tat

Posted on : 2022-10-07 17:13 KST Modified on : 2022-10-07 17:13 KST
The situation today is different from 2017, when tensions had reached a boiling point on the Korean Peninsula but were able to give way to dialogue the following year
Travelers passing through Seoul Station watch a news report on recent missile tests by North Korea on Oct. 7. (Yonhap)
Travelers passing through Seoul Station watch a news report on recent missile tests by North Korea on Oct. 7. (Yonhap)

North Korea fired two more short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) on Thursday. The latest launches came only two days after North Korea fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), believed to be a Hwasong-12, over Japanese airspace into the Pacific Ocean from the village of Mupyong in Jagang Province.

The latest missile launch appears to be a show of force in response to the return of the USS Ronald Reagan, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, to the East Sea for more trilateral maritime missile defense drills with South Korea and Japan.

Ever since the USS Ronald Reagan arrived in Busan on Sept. 23, tensions have sharply risen on the Korean Peninsula. The arrival of the vessel was followed by North Korea firing a missile, then South Korea-US-Japan trilateral military drills, then another North Korean missile launch, then the return of the USS Ronald Reagan to the East Sea, another North Korean missile launch, and then again trilateral military drills.

It is clear to see how this is turning into a tit-for-tat that is rapidly escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Some say the South Korean government should break this “vicious cycle of crisis” by managing the situation on the Korean Peninsula to make things more stable to prevent a small conflict between the two Koreas from escalating into a full-blown war.

According to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), the two missiles launched on Thursday were fired into the East Sea from the Samsok area in Pyongyang between 6:01 am and 6:23 am.

The JCS reported that the first missile flew more than 350 km, reaching a maximum altitude of roughly 80 km and a speed of Mach 5, while the other missile traveled around 800 km, reaching a maximum altitude of some 60 km and a speed of Mach 6.

North Korea’s missile launches on Thursday are being read as an indication of indignation at the return of the USS Ronald Reagan to the East Sea.

“We are watching the development in which the U.S. poses a serious threat to the stability of the situation on the Korean peninsula and its vicinity by dispatching again the carrier task force to the waters off the peninsula,” North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

“The DPRK Foreign Ministry strongly condemns the U.S. and its some satellites for unwarrantedly referring to the UNSC the just counteraction taken by the Korean People’s Army against south Korea-U.S. joint drills escalating the military tensions on the Korean peninsula,” the statement read.

This message can be seen as a diplomatic warning to the US and others but also as a step toward creating a possible justification for North Korea to take stronger military action in the future.

North Korea has launched six missiles in the past 12 days, and it is possible that it will conduct a strategic provocation such as firing a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), or carrying out a seventh nuclear weapon test.

Meanwhile, around 2 pm on Thursday, a group of eight North Korean fighter jets and four bombers staged a formation flight north of the “special reconnaissance line” set by the South Korean military. The South Korean military responded in kind by scrambling jets.

“Our military immediately responded with overwhelming power, with about 30 F-15K fighter jets,” a JCS official said. “The North Korean formation flight is unusual, and it is presumed that it was conducted along with air-to-surface firing drills,” the JCS added.

Drawn arbitrarily by the South Korean military, the “special reconnaissance line” is located tens of kilometers north of the demarcation line separating North from South. South Korean fighter jets are set to respond if the boundary is crossed by North Korean jets, since high-speed North Korean fighter jets can enter the airspace over South Korea’s metropolitan areas within minutes.

North Korea’s formation flight reportedly flew from Goksan in Hwanghae Province toward Hwangju for about an hour.

This kind of formation flight by North Korea has not been seen in over a year, making it a highly unusual move believed to be a reaction to the South Korea-US-Japan trilateral military drills.

The USS Ronald Reagan had initially left the East Sea after concluding the bilateral South Korea-US and trilateral South Korea-US-Japan military exercises on Sept. 26 and Sept. 30, respectively. However, the nuclear-powered vessel returned to the East Sea after North Korea fired an IRBM on Tuesday. The ship also participated in yet another round of trilateral missile defense drills involving South Korea and Japan on Thursday.

The ROKS Sejong the Great destroyer, the USS Ronald Reagan, the USS Benfold Aegis-equipped destroyer, and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Chokai destroyer took part in the exercise.

On the same day, the three countries simulated scenarios of North Korean ballistic missile launches and focused on detecting, tracking and intercepting such missiles.

It is clear that South Korea and the US are unable to find a decisive or effective way through which to stop North Korea from taking further military action. Instead, the Yoon Suk-yeol administration is emphasizing strengthening security cooperation not just between South Korea and the US but also trilaterally, involving Japan.

On his way to work on Thursday, Yoon said, “We will thoroughly take care of the lives and safety of the people based on the strong Korea-US alliance and security cooperation between South Korea, the US and Japan.”

However, Kim Byung-joo, a Democratic Party lawmaker, criticized the government’s policy at a parliamentary audit of the JCS that day.

“Conducting submarine warfare exercises with South Korea, the US and Japan and then the missile defense training show we’re being sucked into a South Korea-US-Japan alliance,” Kim said.

The situation today is different from 2017, when tensions had reached a boiling point on the Korean Peninsula but were able to give way to dialogue the following year. This time around, however, it has become much more difficult to find a breakthrough as the relationship between the US and China has reached its lowest point in years and the continued intensification of confrontation between two blocs made up of South Korea, the US, and Japan on one side and North Korea, China, and Russia on the other.

Solutions at the international level are also proving difficult to come by. A UN Security Council meeting convened on Wednesday to discuss North Korea’s latest ballistic missile launches, ended without any resolution, only confirmation of each council member’s position. On the one hand, the US called for a “resolute response at the Security Council level” while China and Russia argued that the US also held responsibility for the situation.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s National Security Office (NSO) held an emergency National Security Council (NSC) standing committee meeting on Thursday presided over by NSO Director Kim Sung-han to discuss North Korea’s launch of the two SRBMs.

Through a statement, the NSC pointed out that North Korea’s latest provocation was carried out while the UN Security Council was meeting in New York to discuss North Korea's recent ballistic missile launches while also “strongly condemning” North Korea’s latest launch as a “challenge to the international community that cannot be overlooked.”

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter; Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

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

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