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[News analysis] North and South Korea temper shows of force, signal hope for path forward

한겨레 입력 2021. 09. 17. 17:26 수정 2021. 09. 17. 17:46

기사 도구 모음

In a statement issued late the evening before, Workers' Party of Korea Central Committee Vice Department Director Kim Yo-jong warned of a "total deadlock" in inter-Korean relations, but then qualified the message by saying, "We don't want this."

At the same time, Moon also stressed, "Our missile test launch today [Wednesday] is not a response to North Korean provocations, but something that happened on the appointed day based on our independent plan for increasing our missile capabilities."

기사 제목과 주요 문장을 기반으로 자동요약한 결과입니다. 전체 맥락을 이해하기 위해서는 본문 보기를 권장합니다.
글자 크기 조절 레이어
Though the series of missile launches from both the North and the South seem to indicate competing shows of force, both sides seemed wary of letting the situation deteriorate further
The Rodong Sinmun reported on their first page that “a rail-launched missile regiment operating in a mountainous region in central North Korea [. . .] accurately hit its target on the water 800 kilometers away in the Eastern Sea.” The missile, inferred to be a North Korean enhanced Iskander short-range ballistic missile, is seen here being launched from a train. (KCNA/Yonhap News)

Inter-Korean relations are in a precarious state.

On Wednesday, both South and North Korea put on shows of force with missile test launches. Both sides fired ballistic missiles — the South from a submarine, the North from a train.

The South proclaimed its “definite deterrent against North Korea’s provocations,” while the North declared itself to have “increase[d] the capability of dealing an intensive multi-concurrent blow at the forces posing threats to us.”

The situation calls to mind the vicious cycle of a security dilemma, where increased armament meant to protect one side provokes fear and a military response from the other. Such is the state of the Korean Peninsula as we prepare to mark the third anniversary of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s Pyongyang Joint Declaration on Sunday, Sept. 19, and the 30th anniversary of both sides’ separate yet simultaneous admission to the United Nations.

At the same time, the two sides also left a bit of breathing space, responding relatively sedately rather than treating the “missile shows” as fuel for conflict and clashes.

On Thursday, the South Korean Ministry of Unification shared Seoul’s position asserting that “dialogue and cooperation are the best paths toward denuclearizing the peninsula, establishing peace, and making progress in inter-Korean relations.” It also said it would “continue efforts to quickly resume inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation.”

In a statement issued late the evening before, Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee Vice Department Director Kim Yo-jong warned of a “total deadlock” in inter-Korean relations, but then qualified the message by saying, “We don’t want this.”

Kim Jong-un distanced himself from matters, having been absent from the missile launches. Both sides seem to be signaling their plans to continue fumbling to find another way forward.

The signals coming from the South and the North on Wednesday and Thursday were outwardly pointed and complex.

Moon Jae-in was present on Wednesday to watch the test launch of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) at the Agency for Defense Development’s Anheung Test Center. While there, he used the phrase “North Korean provocations” three times.

The National Security Council (NSC) standing committee was also quoted as expressing “grave concerns” about the “continued missile launch provocations by North Korea.”

A South Korean-developed submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) is launched from a 3,000-ton Dosan Ahn Chang-ho-class submarine on Wednesday. President Moon Jae-in, along with other key government and military figures, were present during the test at the Agency for Defense Development’s Anheung Test Center. (provided by the Ministry of National Defense)

This marked the first time this year that the NSC mentioned “North Korean provocations” in one of its announcements. Moon’s numerous references to North Korean provocations are similarly unprecedented.

At the same time, Moon also stressed, “Our missile test launch today [Wednesday] is not a response to North Korean provocations, but something that happened on the appointed day based on our independent plan for increasing our missile capabilities.”

His message seemed to be that the test launch was intended not as a “show of force,” but as a domestic political gesture to emphasize and convince the South Korean public that South Korea has sufficient deterrence capabilities against the North at a time when many are anxious over Pyongyang reinforcing its military capabilities with nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

It also suggests that sophisticated political considerations went into his decision to publicly use the term “North Korean provocations.”

Kim Yo-jong maintained that North Korea was “not aiming to make ‘provocation’ against somebody at a certain time as presumed by south Korea” with its cruise missile launches on Saturday and Sunday and ballistic missile launch on Wednesday.

“What we did is part of normal and self-defensive action to carry out the key task for the first year of the five-year plan for the development of defence science and weapon system in order to implement the decisions made at our [8th] Party Congress [in January],” she said in a statement.

“Explicitly speaking, it is nothing different from the ‘mid-term defence plan’ of south Korea,” she added.

According to her, the launches were not “military actions” meant to disrupt the political situation on the peninsula. At the same time, she expressed “very great regret” over Moon’s “provocation remarks,” which she called “improper.”

Reporting Thursday on the ballistic missile test launch the day prior, North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper wrote, “Pak Jong Chon, member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau and secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, guided a test firing drill of a railway-borne missile regiment.”

In contrast, the late-night statement by Kim that included a warning of “total deadlock” was not published in the Thursday edition of the newspaper, which is accessible to members of the ordinary North Korean public. Instead, it was issued only by the internationally oriented Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), which ordinary North Koreans do not have access to.

This means that the North Korean public at large was not made privy to the statement, in which Kim denounced Moon by name for the first time. This could be seen as indicating efforts by the North Korean top leadership to “manage the situation.”

“The statement by Kim [Yo-jong] was striking for its relatively moderated tone compared with before,” said a former senior government official closely acquainted with the North Korean situation, referring to the absence of insulting and sarcastic rhetoric.

But experts also predicted low-level tension-raising activities could continue for some time.

The same former senior official said there was a “strong possibility that low-level military activities by North Korea will continue unless progress is made in North Korea-US relations.”

Another veteran in the field of foreign affairs and national security predicted, “There’s a possibility that North Korea will continue to engage in [military] activities that raise tensions and a sense of crisis, if only at a mild level, until dialogue is achieved between it and the US.”

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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