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Seoul refrains from calling Pyongyang’s missile launch ‘provocation’

South Korea appears to be leaving room for diplomacy but experts are mixed on the effectiveness

Citizens watch a news report on North Korea's missile launch at Seoul Station in central Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
Citizens watch a news report on North Korea's missile launch at Seoul Station in central Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
South Korea’s National Security Council on Tuesday expressed “regret” over North Korea’s new missile launch, but refrained from calling the latest test a “provocation.”

Earlier in the day, North Korea test-fired a short-range missile toward the East Sea, Seoul's military said, with more flight data still under analysis. The launch came after a test earlier this month of two short-range ballistic missiles from a train.

“NSC members expressed regret over the launch that came at a time when the stabilization of the Korean Peninsula security situation is very important,” Cheong Wa Dae spokesperson Park Kyung-mee said in a brief statement.

She added President Moon Jae-in, who was briefed on the results of the NSC session from his top security adviser Suh Hoon, ordered a comprehensive analysis of the intentions behind Pyongyang’s latest missile launch and recent statements from the North over the weekend.

Tuesday’s missile launch came three days after Kim Yo-jong, the powerful sister of the North’s leader Kim Jong-un, said North Korea would consider holding an inter-Korean summit and declaring an end to the 1950-53 Korean War in response to Moon’s proposal made at his UN speech last week -- but only if certain conditions were met.

Kim’s statement, one of the most conciliatory from the North in years, raised cautious hopes that North Korea has renewed its eagerness for dialogue but her vague wording also fueled mixed speculation.

“With the latest missile launch, North Korea is testing if South Korea has dropped its double standards,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

North Korea has repeatedly accused the South of “double standards” over military activities. South Korea recently tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile, which it said was needed as “deterrence against North Korea’s provocations.”

“The government released a relatively tone-downed statement, possibly to better control the situation. If we (South Korea) had condemned the missile launch as usual, North Korea would have thought ‘nothing has changed’ and was more likely to refuse to reopen the hotlines,” Yang said.

The inter-Korean communication lines were briefly restored in late July but the North has not answered Seoul’s regular calls -- twice a day -- again in protest against the then-planned joint military drills by South Korea and the US. South Korea is seeking to restore the hotlines as a top priority for resuming inter-Korean talks.

Choi Kang, acting president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, was skeptical about the effectiveness of South Korea’s low-profile approach, saying what is more important is the eagerness of the US to reengage with North Korea.

“The missile test shows North Korea’s urgency in making a breakthrough in the stalled talks with the US,” he said. “When North Korea mentions hostile policies, they are saying sanctions relief or withdrawal of American troops from South Korea -- things only the US can decide.”

US-North Korea diplomacy has been at a standstill since the 2019 Hanoi summit between then President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader fell apart without an agreement on ending the North’s nuclear weapons program or on lifting sanctions.

The Joe Biden administration has reiterated that the US has no hostile intent toward the North, urging Pyongyang to resume talks without conditions. North Korea, however, has demanded that South Korea and the US terminate their joint military exercises and American troops and weapons be withdrawn from the South, saying it would return to the negotiating table once the demands were met. The North is not responding to overtures for humanitarian aid either from the South or the US.

In the meantime, South Korea is ramping up efforts to revive its mediator role between North Korea and the US, with Moon’s presidency nearing its end.

On his way back home from a five-day trip to the US, Moon told reporters Thursday that North Korea will return to the negotiating table in the end, noting the country was adhering to its self-moratorium on nuclear testing and intercontinental ballistic missile launches despite low-intensity military activities.

“North Korea will conclude that taking the path of dialogue and diplomacy would be in its interests. Still, it remains to be seen whether the time will come within my term or later in the next government,” he said. The president’s term ends in May next year. 

By Lee Ji-yoon and Choi Si-young 
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