By Eugene Whong
North Korea fired three more missiles on Thursday, a day after launching a barrage of 23, including one that crossed a disputed maritime border and landed near South Korean territory in moves that experts said were meant to ratchet up tensions on the peninsula.
The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said Thursday that North Korea had launched three missiles toward waters to the east of the Korean Peninsula — one long-range missile followed by two apparent short-range missiles an hour later.
A day earlier, one of the 23 missiles was fired across the disputed Northern Limit Line splashed down more than 100 miles (160 km) away from the South’s eastern island of Ulleungdo. It was the first time a North Korean rocket landed south of the line since the 1950-53 Korean War, the South Korean military said.
Firing into waters south of the line is a clear ratcheting up of provocations, Harry Harris, former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, told RFA’s Korean Service.
“I suspect it is an attention-grabbing stunt, but it is dangerous and serves to increase tensions,” he said.
Harris said the launches underscored the naivete of hoping North Korea would return to the negotiating table, and the importance readiness by the South Korea-U.S. alliance to meet threats from the North.
In response to the missile fired Wednesday that crossed the disputed maritime border, South Korean warplanes fired three precision strike air-to-surface missiles of their own about 16 miles north of the line, the same distance that the North’s landed south of it.
“North Korea’s missile launch, which marks the first time since the division of the peninsula that it has landed near our territorial waters south of the NLL, is very rare and intolerable,” the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.
Launching 23 was the most North Korea had fired in a single day, according to the South’s military. The North also fired more than 100 rounds of artillery into a military buffer zone, the military said.
“Our military’s response reaffirms our resolve to sternly respond to any provocations (by North Korea) and shows that we are capable of accurately striking our enemy,” the JCS said.
“It’s a warning”
The barrage was North Korea’s response to Seoul and Washington’s Vigilant Storm joint military exercises after a five-year hiatus, said Gary Samore, the former White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction. The five-day round-the-clock joint air drills began Monday.
“It’s a warning,” said Samore.
“It demonstrates that North Korea has the ability to launch multiple ballistic missiles at targets in South Korea and the region to deter the U.S. and the R.O.K. from attacking North Korea, even though [they] have no intent of attacking,” he said, using the abbreviation for South Korea’s official name, the Republic of Korea.
But drills like Vigilant Storm show the North that in the event of a North Korean attack, the U.S. and South Korea would have “complete domination of the airspace over the battlefield,” he said.
“This barrage from North Korea is not just about refining its missile arsenal,” Jean H. Lee, a veteran journalist who opened and once led the Associated Press’ Pyongyang bureau, said on Twitter.
“Pyongyang is also on a campaign to provoke anxiety in South Korea by raising tensions at a time when the country is in mourning. Could the intention be to fuel anger toward the current government?” she said.
Erasing a line?
Firing a missile south of the Northern Limit Line might be an attempt by Pyongyang to do away with it, Bruce Klingner of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation think tank told RFA.
“They may be trying to push the NLL further south,” he said. “They dispute the NLL, which was drawn by U.N. Command back after the Korean War. So they may be again trying to raise tensions in order to cause Seoul to accept a further south line or a sort of jointly operated buffer zone.”
Klingner said that South Korea’s response was proper, and signaled that Seoul will no longer accept North Korean provocations, but he warned that by firing missiles so close to the border or flying planes near it could inadvertently lead to escalation or even a clash.
Though North Korea launched its most missiles ever in a single day on Wednesday, the barrage was “not very impressive,” said Bruce Bennett of the California-based RAND Corporation.
“It took the North 10 hours to launch 23 missiles; the last of the launches took 40 minutes to fire just 6 missiles,” said Bennett.
“If that is the best North Korea can do in terms of synchronizing missile launches, then the North Korean threat is not very intimidating,” he said.
Bennett said that in a serious attack, Pyongyang would need to launch “many dozens” of missiles within minutes of each other to avoid swift retaliation from the South that would destroy unfired missiles and launchers.
“Thus far, the North is well short of demonstrating that kind of capability,” he said.
But despite Pyongyang’s attempts to project strength through the missile launches, it may actually be a sign of desperation, David Maxwell of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told RFA.
“This may be a sign of desperation because [leader] Kim [Jong Un’s] political warfare and blackmail diplomacy strategies have failed to achieve Kim’s desired effects. South Korea and the United States refuse to appease him,” said Maxwell.
He urged Washington and Seoul not to give in to Kim’s demands.
“Now is the time to increase pressure on Pyongyang with a comprehensive information and influence campaign to force three choices on Kim: change his behavior, have the elite and military leadership force a change, or the Korean people will cause change,” Maxwell said.
More provocations from North Korea are likely to follow in the coming days, Ellen Kim, deputy director of the Korea Chair at the Washington-based Center for Stratigic and International Studies, said in a statement.
“CSIS data shows that North Korea responds belligerently to U.S.-ROK military exercises when there is no ongoing diplomacy taking place among the parties concerned,” she said.
Additionally, with the Nov. 8 U.S. midterm elections less than a week away, an intercontinental ballisitic missile test or even a nuclear test is likely, she said.
With the U.S. and South Korea working to enhance deterrence through their joint exercises, North Korean missile tests, artillery drills and warplane exercises could become a “new normal,” said Kim.
“This is certainly an ominous sign and will be discussed between the U.S. secretary of defense and South Korean defense minister when they meet at the 54th Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) this Thursday in Washington,” she said.
The South Korean government strongly condemned Wednesday’s launches, which are violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions and military agreements made between the two Koreas at summits in recent years, Kim Seong-han, the presidential office’s national security advisor, told reporters.
“I think it is especially deplorable that [this provocation] was carried out during a national period of mourning in South Korea,” he said, referring to the tragic loss of more than 150 lives over the weekend caused by overcrowding during Halloween celebrations in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood.
According to data from the Netherlands-based BNO News, the barrage represented 11 percent of the total number of missiles launched by North Korea since 1953.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a news release that Foreign Affairs Minister Jin Park and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken denounced North Korea’s launches during a phone call.
“The missile launches highlight the DPRK’s reckless behavior and the destabilizing impact of its unlawful WMD and ballistic missile programs,” the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement.
it said, adding that the U.S.’ commitments to defending South Korea and Japan are “ironclad.”
The launch broke “multiple Security Council resolutions,” so the UN will be “putting pressure” on China and Russia to improve and enhance such sanctions, Linda Thomas Greenfield, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, told CNN. She declined to say whether US President Joe Biden would raise the issue with China’s President Xi at this month’s G20 summit, but added it was “on the President’s mind.”
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters Wednesday that he intended to convene a National Security Council as soon as possible, given the heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters that Beijing was closely following the situation.
“It is in the common interest of the region to maintain peace and stability in the peninsula, and resolve each other’s concerns in a balanced manner through dialogue and consultation,” he said, adding that China hopes all concerned parties would work toward a “political settlement” and prevent a “spiral of escalation of the situation.”
But a peaceful settlement cannot be achievable without sweeping change, Maxwell said.
“The West must recognize the bottom line: The only way we will see an end to North Korea’s nuclear program and military threats, as well as the crimes against humanity being committed against the Korean people living in the North by the Kim family regime, is through achievement of unification and the establishment of a free and unified Korea.”
RFA Korean’s Jamin Anderson and Hye Jun Seo contributed to this report.