SEOUL -- North Korea's latest failed missile launch may have been aimed not only at advancing the nation's nuclear weapons technology, but also at censuring the U.S. and South Korea for turning down its invitation to a dialogue.
The launch was attempted Tuesday at 5:20 a.m. Seoul time near the eastern coastal city of Wonsan, according to South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is thought to have involved a Musudan missile with a theoretical range exceeding 3,000km. This would put the missile within striking distance of Guam, which hosts an American air base. The attempt came after a string of three failed Musudan launches in April, underscoring Pyongyang's commitment to developing weapons capable of threatening the U.S.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's policy of simultaneously pursuing economic development and nuclear defense was enshrined in the Workers' Party platform at its congress in early May. Developing missiles to carry nuclear warheads is thus a key goal of the country. The North already has rockets capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. But the South believes that they cannot yet be weaponized, given the immaturity of the North's technology for such functions as re-entering the atmosphere. Nor has a successful Musudan launch ever been confirmed, even though the missiles have been deployed since 2007.
Yet Pyongyang now appears to be blending hard-line demands with a more conciliatory stance on certain issues. May's party congress included a proposal to sign a peace treaty with the U.S. to formally bring the Korean War to a close. South Korean military officials were also called on to participate in cross-border dialogue. The goal of such talks is to achieve recognition of the North's despotic government, as well as to convince Seoul to stop playing anti-Pyongyang propaganda from loudspeakers near the military border. Pyongyang is also calling for an end to regular joint military exercises between the U.S. and the South.
Calls on Washington to end hostile policies toward the North, and on Seoul to participate in dialogue, have continued even after the congress. Pyongyang's armed-forces ministry proposed May 21 that North-South military talks begin in late May or early June. Seoul dismissed this overture, reiterating that Pyongyang must first show a willingness to denuclearize.
Cross-border tensions have since risen. A North Korean fishing boat and patrol boat on Friday crossed the North-South maritime border in the Yellow Sea, retreating after the South fired warning shots. Pyongyang demanded an apology, labeling the shots acts of military provocation.
North Korea appears set to carry on with its own provocations for now, aiming to stir up unease as long as demands for talks remain unmet. And the continued missile launch attempts and other actions will certainly help build up the state's military capabilities, blurring the boundary between a continued hard line and an earnest desire for better ties.