North Korea fired at least three unidentified projectiles early this week, the second such move by the Kim Jong-un regime in two weeks. This came two days after Pyongyang’s threat to take “momentous” action in protest at condemnation over its earlier live-fire exercises.
South Korea’s Defence Ministry said it detected different types of short-range projectiles fired from North Korea’s east coast into the waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan. The projectiles had a maximum flight distance of 200 kms. and maximum altitude of 50 kms. South Korea said that it’s military while being fully prepared was monitoring related movement in case of an additional launch. It added that the launches violated agreements reached with North Korea in 2018 intended to ease military tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korean state media said it carried out military exercises that began on February 28, on the one-year anniversary of Kim’s Summit in Hanoi with US President Donald Trump which ended without a deal. This continued when Pyongyang fired two unidentified short-range projectiles from an area near the eastern coastal city of Wonsan.
The United States has said that the launch was not unexpected and that it will continue to monitor the situation and consult closely with South Korea and Japan. The US however, called on North Korea to avoid provocations, abide by obligations under UN Security Council Resolutions, and return to sustained and substantive negotiations to achieve complete denuclearization.
Japan said that North Korea launched what appeared to be “ballistic missiles” but they did not result in any encroachment into Japanese territory or exclusive economic zone (EEZ). These actions have threatened the peace and security of Japan and the region.
The recent launches came after nearly a two-month pause in similar activities by North Korea. The country had test-fired missiles 13 times in 2019 amid stalled talks with the United States. Though Pyongyang refrained from firing the intercontinental-range missiles that are particularly worrying to the Trump administration. President Trump had called the 2019 launches “very standard” and claimed they posed no direct threat to the US mainland. The weapons do, however, pose a considerable threat to South Korea and some 28,000 US troops stationed there.
Kim had warned the US in 2019 that Washington had until the end of that year to jump-start the stalled denuclearization talks. When that deadline came and went without any movement from Washington, Kim announced in a New Year Day message that his country would bolster its nuclear deterrent and no longer can be held to a self-imposed moratorium on major weapons testing. Kim also pledged to show off a “new strategic weapon” in the near future. Experts say that the “strategic weapon” could mean an advanced type of intercontinental ballistic missile or a submarine-launched ballistic missile. The latest tests however do not appear to fit the category of the promised “strategic weapon.”
North Korea’s military moves are often timed for maximum political impact, both at home and abroad. To his domestic audience, Kim projects strength in the face of perceived external threats. Beyond its borders, Pyongyang’s launches are often perceived as an attempt to get back on the global radar.
Currently, South Korea, Japan and the US are busy in handling the deadly coronavirus outbreaks and have little time to focus on North Korea’s shenanigans.
North Korea might be wanting to apply pressure through these launches on USA, South Korea and Japan to lift the wide-ranging sanctions against it. Pyongyang hopes that Mr. Trump who is in the middle of an election contest could offer some concessions. It can only be hoped that North Korea does not decide to raise the ante and resort to even more provocative transgressions.
A stable, secure and peaceful Korean Peninsula as well as the maritime region in the Sea of Japan is in India’s strategic interests. This is imperative for a smooth and seamless advancement of its Indo-Pacific strategy which has been progressing steadily over the last few years.
Script: Ashok Sajjanhar, Former Indian Diplomat & President, Institute Of Global Studies