[Column] The real reason N. Korea keeps firing missiles

Posted on : 2022-01-25 17:54 KST Modified on : 2022-01-25 17:54 KST
North Korea isn’t vying for Biden’s attention or trying to interfere in South Korea’s election
(KCNA/Yonhap News)
(KCNA/Yonhap News)

North Korea has conducted numerous missile tests already this year. Its hypersonic missile tests on Jan. 5 and 11, were followed up with a test of the “North Korean Iskander” (KN-23) from a train on Jan. 14 and a short-range tactical missile test launch on Jan. 17.

Why is the North doing this?

US Secretary of State Tony Blinken said, “I think some of this [missile testing] is North Korea trying to get attention. It's done that in the past. They'll probably continue to do that.”

This reference to “getting attention” is something that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also made often during the Barack Obama administration.

But there’s an aspect about this that’s strange.

The Obama administration’s approach to North Korea was one of “strategic patience”: raising the barrier to North Korea-US dialogue by presenting Pyongyang with difficult prerequisites. It made some sense, then, to conclude that the North would be trying to use missile testing as a way of getting the US’ attention and bringing it to the table for dialogue.

The current Joe Biden administration, in contrast, has declared an end to strategic patience. Instead, it’s been proposing unconditional dialogue with the North. It has stressed that the door to dialogue is “open” and that it’s willing to discuss any issues at any time and place.

It’s because of this that some analysts see Blinken as barking up the wrong tree when he describes the North’s missile test launches as a bid for “attention” from Washington.

Meanwhile, figures in South Korea’s administration and ruling Democratic Party have been on the lookout for the impact that the North’s successive missile test launches could have on the upcoming presidential election on March 9.

President Moon Jae-in gave the “timing ahead of the election” as one of the reasons he expressed “concerns” about the North Korean missile launches. Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung condemned the activity, which he said was “influencing the South’s political landscape.”

“I want to make it clear that this unquestionably favors a particular side,” he said.

There’s something odd about this analysis too.

It could be argued that People Power Party (PPP) candidate Yoon Suk-yeol is the one who stands to gain from North Korean missile test launches triggering a security crisis. Is the implication here that Pyongyang is continuing to test missiles in order to help a conservative South Korean presidential candidate who has called for a hard line on the North? I doubt very many people would agree with that.

So if Pyongyang isn’t trying to grab Washington’s attention, and if it isn’t trying to influence the South Korean election, then what is its objective? The answer can be found in two expressions that have come up repeatedly since last year: “balance of military power” and “war deterrent.”

In other words, North Korea’s basic objective is to deter war by establishing as much of a balance of military power as possible vis-à-vis its three military adversaries: South Korea, the US and Japan.

It’s easy enough to understand if we put ourselves in North Korea’s shoes. Whereas Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo are all focused solely on the North’s nuclear and missile capabilities, the South Korea-US and US-Japan alliances have an overwhelming military advantage over it. Recently, South Korea and Japan have been growing in leaps and bounds in their independent military capabilities.

As recently as 2017, South Korea’s military strength was rated as 12th in the world. That ranking has recently risen all the way to sixth. Its “three-axis” defense system in particular — consisting of Kill Chain, Korean Air and Missile Defense, and Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation components — has grown much stronger.

Similarly, Japan has been undergoing a shift, with its previous exclusive focus on defense and refusal to acquire offensive weapons giving way to a new approach that regards strikes against enemy bases as a foregone conclusion.

It is in the face of this that North Korea has opted to focus on nuclear weapons and missiles, seeking a balance of military power and war deterrent by acquiring new missile models.

We can see this for ourselves in the nature of the missiles that it has recently been unveiling. The hypersonic missiles are meant to neutralize the missile defense systems of South Korea, the US and Japan; the missiles launched from submarines and trains are meant to establish secondary strike capabilities through a more diverse range of launch platforms.

So how can we stop this from escalating further? The answer certainly doesn’t lie in stronger sanctions against the North or an emphasis on preemptive strikes. A commitment to officially ending the Korean War and providing assistance to the North seems unlikely to be enough either.

What else is there? The answer may be found in South Korea, the US and Japan showing the wisdom to look at the advanced weaponry filling up their own arsenals, rather than just looking at North Korea’s.

By Cheong Wook-Sik, director of the Hankyoreh Peace Institute and director of the Peace Network

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

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