By Alex Willemyns and RFA Korean
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres joined world leaders in condemning North Korea’s test launch of a missile across Japan on Tuesday, as a top South Korean diplomat warned that inaction by the U.N. Security Council would raise doubts about the body’s “viability and relevance.”
The North Korean missile flew over 2,800 miles at 17 times the speed of sound across northern Japan before landing in the Pacific Ocean, according to South Korean military officials, despite multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions banning Pyongyang from ballistic weapons tests.
Seoul described the launch of the first missile to fly over Japan in five years, as an “act of grave provocation” while Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called it “an act of violence.” U.S. President Joe Biden said it was “unlawful,” “destabilizing to the region” and “a danger to the Japanese people.”
Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, called for “dialogue.”
“The Secretary-General strongly condemns the launch of a ballistic missile of possible intermediate range by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) on 4 October,” said Dujarric. “This was a reckless act and a violation of Security Council resolutions.”
“It is also of serious concern that the DPRK has again disregarded any consideration for international flight or maritime safety,” he said.
The United States also called for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday.
South Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, Hwang Joon-kook, told the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday that concrete action was needed from the 15-member council.
“How we address the DPRK issue at the U.N. Security Council will not only serve as a message to the DPRK, but will be a litmus test on the viability and relevance of the Security Council. As such, we urge all member states and the members of the Security Council in particular to join us in sending an unequivocally stern message to the DPRK to choose a different path,” Hwang said.
Chinese and Russian veto
But analysts said the U.N. Security Council was unlikely to take any action, and that the missile was likely meant as a warning to the United States – with the tacit consent of Beijing and Moscow – after recent U.S.-led military drills with Japan and South Korea in the area. North Korea has conducted 23 missile tests this year.
Mark Fitzpatrick, a former deputy assistant secretary for non-proliferation at the U.S. State Department, told RFA the test was an attempt by Pyongyang to remind the United States it had the capacity to attack Guam, a U.S. territory about 2,100 miles from Korea.
“As for punishing North Korea, there’s not a whole lot they can do because without Chinese and Russian support there won’t be any U.N. sanctions on North Korea,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick said the timing of the launch was likely due to drills held off the east coast of the Korean peninsula late last month by South Korea and the United States, which were the first such drills in the area to feature a U.S. aircraft carrier since 2017. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris also visited the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea on Sept. 29.
“North Korea’s objective is to have a deterrence capability. I’m looking at it through their eyes,” he said. “They want to be able to warn the United States that they would be attacked.”
Speaking in the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, In Chol Kim, first secretary of Pyongyang’s U.N. mission, said that the North condemned recent “offensive behaviors by South Korea” and was “closely watching all the military actions that are conducted with the United States.”
“If South Korea continues to commit acts of today like taking issue with our exercise of the right to self defense,” the North Korean diplomat said, “it sure will inevitably pay a high price for it.”
In response to the launch, the United States reiterated its pledge to protect Japan and South Korea against any attack from Pyongyang, with the State Department and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, which is based in Hawaii, both noting the “ironclad” commitment. Japanese and U.S. forces carried out impromptu military drills over the Sea of Japan on Tuesday morning.
More tests expected
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had spoken with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts, foreign ministers Hayashi Yoshimasa and Park Jin, to condemn the actions that he said had violated multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions and would have “destabilizing implications for the region.”
Gary Samore, former White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, said the test launch was not a surprise, and that he expects further launches and even a “nuclear test” after a key Chinese Communist Party congress later this month.
“We don’t know exactly how much of the testing is designed to serve a technical purpose to improve capacity, and how much of it is intended as political signaling,” Samore told RFA, adding it was hard to separate out the two. “But I think it’s consistent with what we know about North Korea’s current position: that they’re going to continue to conduct missile testing.”
Samore agreed that there was little chance of action by the U.N. Security Council, given the veto powers wielded by China and Russia, two of Pyongyang’s main benefactors.
“Action through the U.N. Security Council seems very unlikely, because China and Russia are not willing to go along with additional sanctions against North Korea,” he said.
North Korean state media, meanwhile, also released a statement from a top diplomat in Pyongyang on Tuesday announcing support for Moscow’s unilateral attempts to annex the Russian-occupied Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.
“We respect the will of the residents who aspired toward the integration into Russia and support the Russian government’s stand of making the above-said regions the composition of Russia,” Jo Chol Su, head of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s Department of International Organizations said, according to the Korean Central News Agency.
“They were held in line with the U.N. Charter stipulating the principles of the equal rights and self-determination of the peoples and according to legitimate methods and procedures so that the will of the residents of the two republics and the two regions could be fully reflected,” it said. “An overwhelming majority of the voters supported the integration into Russia.”
Wallace Gregson, former assistant U.S. defense secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs, said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might be growing concerned “that Russia and China are getting all the attention, and he wants to make sure the world remembers him.”
But the primary result, he added, may only be to hasten Japanese efforts to remilitarize.
“One thing that Japan and the United States ought to do is quickly enhance our theater missile defense capability,” he said. “Japan is already very concerned about their defense and they’ve got plans to increase their defense budget. And this is a demonstration of why it’s necessary.”