North Korea: Four Missile Launches in Two Weeks, but There Is No Need to Worry

In late July – early August 2019, North Korea conducted a series of launches of short-range missiles and large-calibre MLRS. This caused a certain stir, which can only be explained if one disregards the following background:

First, despite a certain impetus from the “two and a half summit”, negotiations between the US and DPRK working groups are still at a stalemate. At the same time, Washington continues the sanctions pressure, exaggerating “human rights” issues.

Second, from the beginning of August, the US and South Korea resumed joint military exercises. Until 2018, they caused aggravation every autumn, since especially large military contingents were involved, and the tasks that were worked out there even prompted Pyongyang to refer to them as rehearsals of the invasion of North Korea. No exercises were held last year amid inter-Korean rapprochement. This year it is expected that their scale will be reduced and the agenda will change. However, according to the North Korean-American summit documents, the exercises (as well as missile launches) can be interpreted as a violation of the spirit of the agreements, because both sides promised not to aggravate the situation.

Third, Pyongyang draws attention to the fact that despite similar promises made in the inter-Korean declarations, Seoul continues to arm itself. Yes, this is largely due to the fact, that in order to avoid internal political problems president Moon Jae-in floods the army with money. It also demonstrates that, despite the DMZ’s demilitarisation and the decrease of the conflict likelihood for random reasons, the military power of South Korea has not gone away and there is no talk of concessions to the Communists. South Korea began to purchase F-35 stealth fighters, which, mildly speaking, are not defensive weapons. Moreover, the North Korean Air Force and Air Defence can do little to oppose them. In this context, the North Koreans demonstrate that they have a very serious trump card in their sleeve, be it a long-range large-calibre MLRS or short-range missiles capable of flying along a low trajectory and perform evasion manoeuvres. In turn, they cover the entire peninsula and can actually neutralise the enemy’s air defences.

By the way, a few words about the type of North Korean missiles. Many drew attention to their similarity to Russian Iskanders, but in fact we are talking about a group of missiles of similar type and with similar characteristics. They include the South Korean Hyunmoo 2B missile (which is largely made using Russian technology) and the Ukrainian Grom-2.

It is no coincidence, that today we find ourselves faced with a situation where Seoul, and not Washington, is having a temper tantrum. It is understandable. For Trump it is important that North Korean missiles cannot or will not reach American territory, and Kim did not promise to stop the short-range missile launches, just as there was no formal promise from the US-South Korean side to stop the military exercises. Therefore, everyone here has his own right and the important thing is that (in any case, even after the third North Korean launch) National Security Advisor John Bolton, hawk from head to toe, spoke quite placidly about the North Korean launches and did not call them a threat or a violation of promises. 

Yes, South Korea will be nervous because the informational support for the launches contained a rather tough-worded warning to the South Korean leadership, although President Moon was not named. Seoul was accused of duplicity, of saying one thing and doing another, because ceremonial events and cheap “contacts” in the humanitarian field are one thing, and actions aimed at real rapprochement are something else entirely. In addition, this is a very serious blow to the image of Moon as a wise diplomat, who initiated an inter-Korean dialogue and rapprochement between the DPRK and the United States. The northerners openly made it clear that they will solve their problems with America without the mediation of Seoul, since it is not a neutral mediator, but an ally of Washington, no matter how it is packaged.

However, the public consciousness in South Korea, as in Japan, is now diverted amid a seriously heated trade war, which bears more heavily on the domestic agenda than the much more hypothetical threat of a North Korean missile attack. Therefore, in general, Seoul and Tokyo are limiting themselves to ordinary verbal indignation. 

In essence, Pyongyang has demonstrated new types of weapons, which in a possible conflict on the peninsula could be perceived as a “game changer”, but its response to joint military exercises can be called symmetrical and not promise-breaking. Of course, until the exercises are finished, there won’t be any contact between the parties, but later, as in case of past exacerbations, the tension will subside and the parties will return to revitalising or imitating the negotiation process. At present, in a situation where the parties are declaring a search for a way out of the problems, the desire for denuclearisation suits everyone. The fact is that the problem is not so much solved, as it is put on hold. But since there is no mutually acceptable solution, to seek does not always mean to find. In this sense, both launches and exercises can drag out the process and make it more volatile, but at the same time neither side is going to break off the dialogue. That is why the harsh statements of the North Korean KCNA agency do not affect Washington, and US officials do not consider the “Kim-Iskanders” as a new threat to peace.

Ominous Disengagement? Mixed Signals from North Korea’s Show of Force
Hoo Chiew-Ping
The current worrying trend of Japan-Korea rift to the point of strategic decoupling on all fronts (diplomatic, economic, and strategic), which coincides with North Korean weapon tests, will certainly damage US-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation in managing North Korean threat.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.