North Korea fired two projectiles presumed to be short-range ballistic missiles on Saturday, marking the ninth round of such launches this year. The North’s state news agency reported Sunday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversaw the test of a “super-large multiple rocket launcher.” The Seoul government has expressed strong concern about the launches, while the military launched two-day military drills Sunday participated by the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Coast Guard around the country’s easternmost islets of Dokdo.
Pyongyang’s latest provocation came four days after South Korea and the United States completed their combined command post exercise, and a day after Seoul notified Tokyo of its decision to terminate the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). U.S. President Donald Trump earlier said that working-level nuclear talks would resume following the completion of the joint military drill, and South Korea’s presidential office also expected that the North Korea-U.S. dialogue would swiftly restart. Yet, Kim went against their expectations, ratcheting up tensions by even mentioning the success of the underwater test-fire of strategic submarine ballistic missiles (SLBM) three years ago.
The latest launches seem to be intended to take advantage of conflicts between Seoul and Tokyo over the termination of their intelligence sharing deal and a crack in the South Korea-U.S. alliance, to cause confusion in the existing structure in Northeast Asia. Now that Seoul’s decision to leave the agreement has cut off a channel in trilateral security cooperation, Pyongyang might have considered the current situation as a golden opportunity to enhance its own nuclear and missile capabilities as well as bargaining power for future nuclear talks.
Meanwhile, South Korea, the United States, and Japan have responded to the North’s firings in a not-so-unified manner. The Japanese government unusually made public the North’s missile test 26 minutes before the announcement by South Korea, in an apparent move to stress its ability to gather military information. Seoul’s announcement slightly differed from that of Tokyo in terms of the launch time and range, revealing lack of bilateral cooperation. The South Korean government has called on North Korea to halt missile launches, while President Trump made little of it, saying that they “never restricted short-range missiles.” Japan has called the missile test a clear violation of the U.N. Security Council resolutions.
An official at the presidential office said that not a single piece of information Japan provided was meaningful. Another official also reportedly said that there was a possibility that Japan would scrap the agreement unilaterally once Seoul decided to renew the deal, making the Moon Jae-in administration look foolish. Such remarks point to deep distrust between the two countries, and if the Dokdo defense drills that kicked off Sunday were another preemptive action South Korea wanted to push ahead despite Japan’s opposition, the bilateral relationship seems to have hit a point where it can no longer be restored.
Lack of diplomacy between the two neighbors will only intensify conflicts in various areas with Japan set to enforce the measure to remove South Korea from its whitelist on Wednesday. We cannot rule out a possibility that military incidents like those early this year including Japan’s low-flying patrol aircraft and the radar lock-on will lead to clashes. In the face of the biggest pressing issue in the region, North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, we should not leave the disputes with Japan and a crack in the alliance with the United States as they are. Though belated, South Korea should make active diplomatic efforts to mend ties with the two countries lest Kim Jong Un be the only beneficiary of the chaos in Northeast Asia.