Tensions are mounting on the Korean Peninsula due largely to North Korea’s latest and biggest single missile test. Pyongyang’s new provocation is deeply worrisome, since it heralds an imminent nuclear test as well as the beginning of a firepower demonstrations race.
On Monday, South Korea and the United States launched surface-to-surface Army Tactical Missile System missiles into the East Sea. The rare show of firepower came as a rare tit-for-tat response to North Korea’s latest missile launches.
North Korea fired eight short-range ballistic missiles toward the East Sea from four sites including Sunan in Pyongyang on Sunday.
The Sunday missile launches were North Korea’s 18th military provocation this year and the third since President Yoon Suk-yeol took office on May 10. The scale of North Korea’s missile provocation was alarming enough, but it did not come as a total surprise for two reasons.
First, North Korea has been ratcheting up its missile launches this year, an aggressive posture that is widely seen to continue until it gets significant rewards for its saber-rattling. Second, the latest launch came after South Korea and the US finished a three-day combined military exercise near Okinawa, Japan.
North Korea seems to have taken the combined military exercise as a particularly serious threat because it involved the USS Ronald Reagan, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. It was the first mobilization of a such a carrier since November 2017.
North Korea showed vigorous opposition to the joint military exercise, calling it a rehearsal for an invasion, even though the regime has long been responsible for the heightened tensions on the peninsula by toying with destructive weapons programs.
The provocative moves by North Korea are nothing new, though the allies’ response on Monday suggests that they are taking a substantially new approach.
But whether a show of force from South Korea and the US will work as an effective deterrent against the North’s continued provocations is questionable at best, and troubling at worst.
“Our government will respond firmly and sternly to any North Korean provocation,” President Yoon said at a Memorial Day ceremony held Monday. “North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are reaching a level that threatens not only peace on the Korean Peninsula, but also in Northeast Asia and the world.”
It is the right course of action that Yoon has taken a stern approach to North Korea’s provocations. But it is also true that South Korea and the US have long found it extremely difficult to persuade Pyongyang to give up on its weapons programs and return to the negotiating table for peace talks.
Critics in Seoul express worries that an exchange of firepower demonstrations in the form of a Cold War confrontation may not bring many benefits other than a sense of insecurity for all the parties involved.
Tensions, unfortunately, are likely to go up even higher as North Korea is thought to have completed all preparations for a nuclear test. If conducted, it will mark its seventh such test, after conducting the last one in September 2017.
A nuclear test by North Korea could send the already worsened inter-Korean relations down to a new low. It will also have the potential to trigger a rapid and precarious escalation of geopolitical tensions on the Korean Peninsula and beyond, a scenario that nobody wants to take place.
The US said it is concerned about North Korea’s nuclear test in the near future, but reaffirmed its commitment to engaging with the North.
The Yoon administration should understand that a show of power has only a limited effect and is now urged to find a new breakthrough to deal with North Korea by closely working with the US.
By Korea Herald (email@example.com