SEOUL/TOKYO — By firing its third missile in as many weeks Monday, the North Korean regime has defiantly signaled its intent to advance its ballistic and nuclear programs by taking advantage of the conflicting stances adopted by Western allies versus China and Russia.
The suspected Scud missile, which splash-landed within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, was launched ahead of next month’s joint military exercises by the U.S. and South Korea. Planned as one of the largest such drills ever, it will be conducted just off the Korean Peninsula and will include the American nuclear-powered aircraft carriers USS Ronald Reagan and USS Carl Vinson.
Pyongyang, undeterred by the looming show of force, characterized the exercises as a “reckless action” that threatens to ignite already heightened tensions in the Koreas, according to a statement issued Monday by the Korean Central News Agency, the state mouthpiece.
South Korean authorities believe Monday’s missile was a Scud-C type with a range of 500km. In March, the North fired four 1,000km Scud-ER (extended range) missiles simultaneously, three of which landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. The North Korean military said it was practicing targeting U.S. military bases in Japan.
The hermit state is both testing and boasting about its abilities to accurately hit targets, says Moon Sung-mook, a senior researcher at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy in Seoul and a former military official. Moon adds that Pyongyang is sending a message to Japan and the international community that it will not give in to sanctions or other pressure.
An expanding arsenal
North Korea also has developed the mid-range Rodong missile, capable of hitting Japan, and the Musudan ballistic missile, which could reach U.S. territory in Guam. The regime has also achieved the ability to miniaturize nuclear warheads and load them in Scuds and Rodongs, said Park Hwi-rak, dean of the graduate school of political science at South Korea’s Kookmin University.
North Korea possesses roughly 1,000 ballistic missiles — including 500 Scuds and approximately 200 Rodongs. One new weapon in the arsenal is the Hwasong-12, which launched on May 14 and reached an altitude topping 2,000km. Though it traveled less than 800km terrestrially that day, its 5,000km-plus range at normal trajectory could extend all the way to Hawaii or parts of Alaska.
South Korean military experts say the Hwasong-12 approaches a true intercontinental ballistic missile. Japan’s Self-Defense Force at its present capability would also have a difficult time intercepting it.
In February, the Pyongyang regime first test-fired the medium-range Pukguksong-2, a solid-fuel rocket that can be launched quickly from a mobile platform, making it hard for the U.S. military to detect beforehand. After the second test May 21, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered the mass production and deployment of the missile.
The Russian-Chinese Trump card
The latest launch is also an act of defiance against the Group of Seven leaders, which issued a statement last week in Italy strongly condemning North Korea and its “new levels of threat of a grave nature.”
The hard line taken by Japan and the U.S. remains unchanged. After a 25-minute phone call Monday with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters both sides “have agreed to cooperate to step up pressure on North Korea based on results reached at the G-7 summit and bilateral talks between Japanese and U.S. leaders.”
The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force plans to conduct drills with the USS Ronald Reagan, just as it had with the USS Carl Vinson in April, prior to their military exercise with South Korea. Tokyo and Washington have confirmed that they will take specific action geared toward lifting defense capabilities. The two have also agreed to actively lobby China and Russia to see the North Korean situation on their terms.
North Korea has launched 12 missiles so far this year, a pace that is exceeding the 20-odd rockets fired in 2016. Even as Japan, the U.S. and other G-7 allies name North Korea a “top priority in the international agenda,” a breakthrough hinges on swaying Beijing and Moscow, two holdouts on stronger sanctions.
U.S. President Donald Trump once again took that campaign to Twitter on Monday. “North Korea has shown great disrespect for their neighbor, China, by shooting off yet another ballistic missile,” he wrote. “But China is trying hard!”