After a months-long hiatus that may have been forced by the coronavirus crisis in Asia, North Korea resumed weapons demonstrations on March 2 by firing two “short-range ballistic missiles” into its eastern sea. Fired from Wonsan on the country’s east coast, the projectiles headed towards the Sea of Japan, known in Korea as the East Sea. The launches came two days after North Korea’s state media said leader Kim Jong Un supervised a “joint strike” military drill aimed at testing the combat readiness of units in front-line and eastern areas. This is first such exercise by North Korea in 2020. According to South Korea’s military assessment, the test marked a continuation of that exercise and the projectiles in question traveled 240 kilometers at a maximum altitude of 35 kilometers.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) was quick to react saying that such actions do not help ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula and urged Pyongyang to stop such tests immediately. This also marked the first missile test by North Korea since November 28, when it reported to have conducted a “test-fire of super-large multiple rocket launchers (MRLs)”. It also marked the first from Wonsan since the launch of the “new-type” Pukguksong-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on October 3.
According to South Korea’s assessment, the test represented a continuation of what it said was small and conventional in nature. Such assessment makes sense as North Korea has presented missiles that fit this profile as “tactical” and implicitly conventional in nature. According to Kim Dong-yub, an analyst at Seoul’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies, the missile tested by the North was one of its road-mobile, solid-fuel missile systems or a developmental “super large” multiple rocket launcher that it demonstrated many time in 2019. Such weapons can potentially overwhelm missile defense systems and expand the North’s ability to strike targets in South Korea and Japan, including US bases there.
The question that begs an answer is what provoked Kim Jong-un to resume such missile tests now? It could be that he lost his patience because of diplomatic inaction in dealing with the US, with talks effectively on ice since a meeting in Stockholm fell apart without a deal in October 2019. Then came December that saw a relative calm, despite North Korean threats of a “Christmas gift” for the US a month earlier.
It may be recalled that in the closing months of 2019, Kim Jong-un had told the party plenum that his country would “steadily develop necessary and prerequisite strategic weapons” in 2020, though he stopped short of ending an April 2018 self-declared moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing.
North Korea effectively closed its borders since late January 2020, amid a nationwide campaign to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. It was for this scare that the US and South Korea postponed plans to go ahead with a joint computer-simulated “command post training” exercise. It is also possible to believe that the test of March 2 represented the kind of “operational training test” that North Korea often undertakes in March. Indeed, March has been a reliable month for North Korea for missile testing, especially as a response to US-South Korea drills. According to Ankit Panda, an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientist, Kim Jong-un tested a KN-23, “perhaps on a more depressed trajectory than normal”.
It was not immediately clear how the US will respond to the testing by the North Korea as diplomacy between the two countries was stalled and Trump and top officials refraining from discussing the North Korean issues in recent months. Andrei Lankov, a director at the Korea Risk Group, felt that the US shall play down this incident, terming this “not a big deal”. Lankov also reminded that for North Korea it was “just a show of force and reminder about their existence, and probably a way to get some useful technical information”. After all, these tests are not just about politics, but about technology too.
Interestingly, even when the new coronavirus draws world’s attention, North Korea’s first projectile firing could be seen to underscore its intention to draw the focus of the US onto Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs. At a key ruling party meeting in late December, Kim Jong Un pledged to unveil a “new strategic weapon” in the near future. But North Korea shied away from provocative actions for some time amid the outbreak of the pneumonia-causing virus. Though South Korea took measures in time to control the spread of the virus, the developments could severely impact North Korea. This is because as North Korea takes measures to head off the disease by taking measures such as cutting off traffic to and from neighbouring countries, it could face significant economic downturn after being forced to drastically reduce trade activities with its key economic lifelines — China and Russia.
North Korea has yet to confirm any COVID-19 cases, though a number of people have been quarantined after exhibiting symptoms. North Korea has shut down nearly all cross-border traffic, banned tourists, intensified screening at entry points and mobilized tens of thousands of health workers to monitor residents and isolate those with symptoms. South Korea withdrew dozens of officials from an inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong after North Korea insisted on closing it until the epidemic is controlled.
Clearly, Pyongyang is under pressure. Germany and France are also reported to have decided to close their embassies in Pyongyang, increasing the likelihood that North Korea will be more diplomatically isolated down the road. It remains to be seen how Kim Jung-un responds to this new situation.
The next question that arises how is did the US President Trump react to North Korea’s missile testing. Interestingly, Trump told reporters that he had “no reaction” to North Korea’s missile launches. The unusually terse comments from the president on a major national security issue — just 11 words, four of which were “no” — come after North Korea conducted its first military drills and missile tests of the year and then boasted about them in the country’s propaganda. The president’s North Korea comments highlighted what appears to be a new strategy for the Trump administration in dealing with the ordinarily provocative issue: stay quiet.
This was a dramatic turnaround for a mercurial President who not long ago had reacted sharply to North Korea’s provocations, saying that the North would be met with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it threatened the US. This time, he preferred to keep quiet and avoided making any public statement on North Korea’s activities. Indeed, Trump’s North Korea policy is not endorsed by the home constituency in totality. Only a week before North Korea’s missile testing, one of the administration’s top North Korea negotiators, Alex Wong, backed out of testifying at a Senate hearing on North Korea policy and opted instead to speak at a friendly think tank, where he did not have to face difficult questions about Washington’s long-stalled diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang. Interestingly, the President in his State of the Union address in early February broke his own precedent and avoided mentioning North Korea at all in the speech. The “no reaction” comment appeared to be in continuation of that trend. Trump’s non-reaction was interpreted in several quarters that he is unprepared and disengaged on even the most basic of North Korea details.
On the one-year anniversary of Trump’s historic second meeting with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean army conducted its first military drills of the year, despite that a day earlier the US and South Korea had announced they would be cancelling their own upcoming joint military exercises because of the coronavirus epidemic, a decision the North did not make for its own army. Some analysts speculated that the North cut back training and other activities involving large gatherings of soldiers to reduce the possibility of the virus spreading within its military.
As expected, Seoul condemned the North’s missile tests, saying they were “not helpful to efforts to ease military tensions on the Korean Peninsula”. It felt that resumption of testing activity could raise military tensions. That comment provoked scathing criticism from the senior North Korean official and Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo Jong who compared the country to a frightened dog. She seems to have remarked: “As the saying goes, a burnt child dreads the fire”.
Japan said that it had not detected any projectile landing in its territory or its exclusive economic zone, and that no sea vessels or aircraft had been damaged. While expressing concern at repeated firings of ballistic missiles by North Korea, the government resolved to monitor the situation and protect the live and property of the people.
The launches were the latest setback for dovish South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who despite the North’s indifference has repeatedly pleaded for reviving inter-Korean engagement. It was only a day before North’s missile firing, Moon in a speech marking the 101st anniversary of a major uprising against Japanese colonial rule called for cooperation between the two Koreas to fight infectious diseases amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Asia.
North Korea remains unmoved, however. Amid the deadlock in larger nuclear negotiations with the Trump administration, Kim has suspended virtually all cooperation with South Korea in the last months while demanding that Seoul defy US-led international sanctions and restart inter-Korean economic projects that would jolt the North’s broken economy.
Kim and President Trump have met three times since embarking on their high-stakes nuclear diplomacy in 2018, but negotiations have faltered since their second summit in February 2019 in Hanoi, where the Americans rejected North Korean demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capability. Following the collapse in Hanoi, the North ended a 17-month pause in ballistic missile activity and conducted at least 13 rounds of weapons launches in 2019, using the standstill in talks to expand its military capabilities.
Those weapons included road-mobile, solid-fuel missiles designed to beat missile defense systems and a developmental midrange missile that could eventually be launched from submarines, potentially strengthening the North’s ability to strike targets in South Korea and Japan, including US bases there.
It transpires that Trump is now convinced that North Korea would not bend despite threats, pressure and what Pyongyang says “gangster-like” sanctions and implicitly has admitted defeat. Kim Jong-un probably achieved what it wanted – to sit across the table with the American President on equal terms. If Trump does not meet Kim’s expectations and desire to let North Korea live as an independent sovereign nations, no amount of pressure and sanctions are likely to work. That leaves Kim Jong-un to pursue what he believes in North Korea’s national interests.