[Editorial] N. Korean missile launch across Japan raises specter of 2017 crisis repeat

Posted on : 2022-10-05 17:07 KST Modified on : 2022-10-05 17:07 KST
Neither the South nor the North benefits from this situation
A news report on a North Korean ballistic missile launch Tuesday toward the Pacific Ocean over Japanese airspace appears on a large display in central Tokyo. (EPA/Yonhap)
A news report on a North Korean ballistic missile launch Tuesday toward the Pacific Ocean over Japanese airspace appears on a large display in central Tokyo. (EPA/Yonhap)

For the first time in five years since September 2017, North Korea launched an intermediate-range ballistic missile that flew across Japanese airspace Tuesday before landing in the Pacific Ocean.

The missile is presumed to be the Hwasong-12 model that appeared in 2017, when North Korea was threatening to lay siege to the US territory of Guam. This is raising the alarm that North Korea may ratchet up its provocations, up to and including a seventh nuclear test.

President Yoon Suk-yeol called for a response through stronger trilateral military cooperation with the US and Japan, while South Korea and the US conducted a precision bombing drill the same day. The government’s capacity to respond effectively is being put to the test amid the growing possibility of a similar crisis on the Korean Peninsula to the one in 2017.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) calculated that the missile flew a distance of 4,500 km, the longest traveled by a ballistic missile launched by North Korea at a normal angle (30 to 45 degrees). Given that the distance from Pyongyang to Guam is approximately 3,400 km, this launch can be interpreted as North Korea showing its capacity to target Guam — a launching base for US military reinforcements — as well as the US.

This intermediate-range missile launch, which is aimed at sending warning signals to the US and Japan, comes on the heels of four short-range missile launches targeting South Korea since Sept. 23, when a US aircraft carrier arrived in Busan.

With the US midterm elections looming in November, North Korea’s next course of action is expected to be the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile or a seventh nuclear test. There is no ruling out a possible repeat of the perilous situation in the summer of 2017, when North Korea declared to the US that it had devised a strategy to “lay siege to Guam” with its Hwasong-12 missile. This could lead to a significant worsening of South Korea’s security situation.

At a National Security Council (NSC) meeting held the same day, Yoon instructed officials to hold consultations toward strengthening the US commitment to extended deterrence and raising the level of security cooperation with the US and Japan in response to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles.

The same afternoon, South Korea and the US conducted a combined air strike package, alongside precision bombing drills on virtual targets at the Chik-do Weapon Range in the West Sea. The hardline confrontation on the Korean Peninsula is expected to continue, as the South Korean government responds to North Korea’s increasing provocations by deploying US strategic weapons, launching missiles, or conducting South Korea-US-Japan joint military drills.

There are also serious concerns that tensions among South Korea, the US, Japan, North Korea, China, and Russia will become entrenched at a time when the safety valve for responding to North Korea’s provocations is limited by divisions in the United Nations Security Council and ever-closer ties among North Korea, China, and Russia.

Neither the South nor the North benefits from this situation. North Korea must stop its reckless provocations, and South Korea must create a way out by strengthening its military preparedness while adopting a strategic North Korea policy that aims to resume dialogue with Pyongyang in the long run.

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

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