In the space of a week, North Korea has conducted its third missile test. The test in question took place on Friday morning, during which two short-range missiles were fired from the country’s South Hamgyong province into the Sea of Japan. The missiles are said to have travelled at a low altitude, at a speed of 220km—a speed that analysts say is unusually fast.
Such actions, which are believed to be a reaction to U.S. and South Korean military exercises, have prompted the immediate reaction of the likes of the U.K., France and Germany, who have all called on the Pyongyang to engage in meaningful talks with the United States. Speaking at a closed-door session of the UN Security Council, all three called for international sanctions to be fully enforced.
U.S. President Donald Trump on the other hand, played down North Korea’s recent actions saying that he was not worried about them, further adding that they were “very standard” and not part of recent talks with Kim Jong-un—the two have met three times.
North Korea had scaled back its missile launches significantly over the past year. That was until this week, when it set things off with a first missile launch that took place on the 25th of July and involved the launching of two missiles, one of which traveled a distance of 640 km. This was followed by two other missile tests on the 1st of August, which saw both missiles fly at a speed of 250 km and a height of 30km before landing in the Sea of Japan—similar to what happened during Friday’s missile test.
The current round of missile tests are the first ones since President Trump and Chairman Kim’s unplanned meeting back in June at the demilitarized zone (DMZ), which is located along the border between North and South Korea. That meeting was meant to be a precursor to renewed talks over North Korea’s complete denuclearization. Although much work remains to be done before those talks can resume—it has been reported that diplomats have been crisscrossing the region with the aim of reviving those talks—it is safe to assume that these latest actions by Pyongyang could affect the outcome of those discussions.
Not that this has ever stopped the current U.S. president from investing time, effort and political capital when pursuing his foreign policy objectives—just as long as it serves as a political win for his administration. This much has been evident across several other thorny issues that have marked his time in office, from the decision to recognize the Jerusalem as the capital of Israel to the decision to renegotiate treaties such NAFTA. His current approach to the issue of denuclearization on the Korean peninsula is proving to be no different, and will most likely see him continue to play down the significance of further missile tests by North Korea. Why is that so? Obviously, there is the issue of optics. Regardless of what he ultimately achieves during the latest phase of the denuclearization efforts, he has scored an historic accomplishment by simply engaging in face-to-face discussions with the leader of North Korea—something that none of his predecessors were willing or able to do during their respective times in office.
Secondly, North Korea has finally realized it long-held ambition of being viewed by the U.S. as an ‘equal’ on the world stage. It had for quite some time sought to achieve this status and now that it has become a nuclear power—and seen its leader engage in talks with the leader of the world’s superpower—it is difficult to see both countries’ relationship devolving into the state of rhetorical pugilism that marked President Trump’s first years in office. At least for now, it seems, fears of an escalation or military engagement have been put to bed. The challenge at the moment is to maintain a cordial relationship between both sides while delivering on the goal of denuclearization.
Now, to ensure that the desired political win actually materializes, the current U.S. administration will want to make sure that this week’s events do not get in the way of the small progress that has been made by both sides in recent times. To that end, the U.S. will likely deal with these actions in a manner that is commensurate with the threat level presented by them (together with the intent behind them). That is only if it sees these actions as an attempt by the North Koreans to send a message to both the U.S. and its allies in South Korea, who are both planning to conduct joint-war exercises, which have for a long time been considered a provocative action in Pyongyang’s view. It is unclear whether the U.S. will act to further scale back or cancel those exercises. But, as North Korea’s recent statements suggest, these military exercises are viewed by the country’s leadership as a violation of the joint statement signed by President Trump and Chairman Kim in Singapore last year.
As the U.S. continues to pursue talks with the Kim regime, it is important that it remains committed to strengthening the defence capabilities of its East Asian allies, Japan and South Korea—countries whose immediate security concerns are under increasing threat due to Pyongyang’s growing military, nuclear strength, and missile tests of course.
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