North Korea is increasingly brazen about violating South Korean and Japanese territory, which could eventually provoke a strong counter-response, says Robert Kelly.
BUSAN: North Korea’s pattern of missile tests this year has been aggressive and relentless. On Nov 2, it fired at least 23 missiles into the sea, the most it had fired in a day. One landed off the coast of South Korea for the first time.
The missile tests over the past few weeks have been of multiple ranges, from short-range, regionally intended weapons, to heavy, intercontinental ballistic missiles for striking the United States.
This has attracted global attention. In a joint press conference on Nov 3, the US secretary of defence and the South Korean foreign minister declared that North Korean nuclear weapon use would lead to the regime’s destruction. Such remarks are unprecedented.
WHY ALL THESE TESTS NOW?
Much of the debate has turned on why North Korea has suddenly accelerated its testing schedule.
There are several possible reasons. First, the US and South Korea are conducting major military exercises at the moment. These traditionally activate a North Korean response; the North calls the drills practice for an invasion.
South Korea has also inaugurated a new conservative president who is far more hawkish on the North than his predecessor, which could have provoked more robust tests this round.
It is possible that the North wishes to remind us that it is still relevant, a potential spoiler which demands attention and respect. The missile tests came as international players were preoccupied with domestic events, with the US gearing up for the Nov 8 midterm elections and China holding a major party congress in October.
The administration of US President Joseph Biden has devoted little effort to North Korea – unlike predecessor Donald Trump. The North may be seeking to refocus US attention on itself, because the US has led crippling sanctions against Pyongyang, which it desperately wants rolled back.
When former president Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Kim’s primary goal was to lift sanctions. He offered Trump very little though at Hanoi in 2019 – and Trump turned down the deal.
With the failure of negotiations, the North likely reckons that another way to break the economic cordon around it is to punish the US and other sanctioning states with tests and threats.
The Biden administration has indicated a willingness to talk with North Korea, but Pyongyang has rejected that. It seems to have doubled down on a coercive diplomacy strategy – bludgeoning South Korea, Japan, and the US with so many missile tests, and possibly a nuclear test, that the three allies feel compelled to make concessions to avoid escalation.
In the medium term, all these tests – both of missiles and potentially nukes – also serve the regime security of the Kim family. North Korea’s conventional military, while large, is technologically outdated compared to the US and South Korea.
The conventional balance is slowly turning against the North, so missiles – which are hard to defend against – and nuclear weapons help shore up deterrence and inhibit any US preemptive action.
GROWING DISREGARD FOR SOVEREIGNTY OF NEIGHBOURING STATES
All this interpretation of North Korea’s actions – what is it trying to tell us with these tests? – is familiar. North Korea has long launched missiles near the inter-Korean border and otherwise engaged in provocations.
But these recent tests have added a new element – a brazenness about violating Japanese and South Korean air space.