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N Korea at crossroads

Tensions rise on Korean Peninsula as both sides test missiles

Analysts say Kim Jong Un wants to strengthen leverage over U.S.

North Korea fires a ballistic missile from a train in a central part of the country on Wednesday.   © KCNA/Kyodo

SEOUL -- Missile tests this week by both North and South Korea have raised tensions on the peninsula, as Pyongyang looks to strengthen its leverage over Washington, and Seoul continues to bolster its defensive prowess.

North Korea's claim it fired a long-range cruise missile at the weekend was followed on Wednesday with the launch of two ballistic missiles that Japan said landed in its exclusive economic zone. Also Wednesday, South Korea conducted its first-ever official test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).

North Korea's Rodong Sinmun newspaper said the cruise missile was a "strategic weapon of great significance," implying it could carry a nuclear warhead. The official Korean Central News Agency on Thursday said the previous day's ballistic missiles were launched from a "railway-borne missile system" -- a new firing method.

Earlier on Wednesday, KCNA criticized Japan's newly unveiled 2022 defense budget, calling the country a "war criminal state" with intentions to pursue a "dangerous arms buildup to realize the wild ambition for reinvasion by turning the [Self-Defense Forces] into an offensive force that has discarded the cloak of 'exclusive defense'."

Yoichiro Sato, a professor at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan, said Pyongyang is trying to show off its increased capacity to break through Japan's missile defense system.

"The recent two tests appear to aim at demonstrating improved North Korean ability to attack targets in Japan," he said. "The U.S. and Japan need to stick together to improve missile defense and not give in to North Korean attention-seeking."

The tests also came amid several high-level diplomatic meetings this week. Senior diplomats from South Korea, Japan and the U.S. met in Tokyo on Tuesday to discuss North Korea, while China's foreign minister held talks with his South Korean counterpart in Seoul on Wednesday.

Jung Kim, assistant professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said the timing of the tests was no coincidence. "Pyongyang works hard to grab the attention of those countries without crossing the line," he said.

Similarly, Soo Kim, a policy analyst at RAND Corporation, said Pyongyang's recent missile tests are "probably intended to underscore the relevance of the North Korean threat and to press the urgency button."

"Whether Kim Jong Un is aiming for nuclear negotiations now or later, these tests will help him secure and strengthen his leverage over the U.S. and South Korea," she said.

With months of no progress on the Korea issue, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden to ignore Pyongyang, and Kim Jong Un has been underscoring that through these recent provocations.

Jeffrey Robertson, an associate professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, said North Korea is putting pressure on the U.S. to take action. "Regardless of how Biden deals with North Korea, neglect was never going to be an ideal long-term policy approach," he said. "Neglecting North Korea is like turning your back on the ocean."

But Jung Kim said any major policy shift by the Biden administration in the near future is unlikely as Washington is focused on Afghanistan, the COVID-19 pandemic and other domestic issues.

"President Biden is simply too busy to consider the ballistic missile tests seriously right now," he said. "It is unlikely for Washington to alter its North Korea policy by offering more concessions in order to bring Kim Jong Un back to the negotiation table."

South Korea's first underwater-launched ballistic missile is test-fired from a 3,000-ton-class submarine at an undisclosed location in the waters off South Korea on Wednesday.   © South Korea Defense Ministry/AP

South Korea's confirmation of its own missile launch just hours after North Korea's test also further complicates diplomatic efforts on the peninsula. Some experts fear the SLBM test may accelerate the regional arms race.

South Korea has grown its military industry quickly in recent years, rising from the 31st-ranked arms exporting country in 2000 to sixth in 2020, according to the SIPRI arms transfer database.

Although Seoul is hailing the successful launch as a great accomplishment, its consequences for inter-Korean rapprochement will likely be much less positive. The North was quick to respond to the test. Kim Yo Jong, sister of Kim Jong Un, criticized Seoul for having an "illogical, antiquated and foolish attitude" and warned of the "complete destruction" of inter-Korean relations.

But Seoul disagrees. "The possession of an SLBM has a significant meaning for the purpose of securing deterrence capabilities responding to omnidirectional threats and will play a big role in the establishment of national self-defense and peace on the Korean Peninsula in the future," South Korea's presidential office said in a statement.

Although the events that unfolded on Wednesday are unlikely to help inter-Korean relations, Pyongyang's main goal remains the restart of productive engagement with Washington.

Sato said that "desperation due to the COVID-19 pandemic" is one of the key reasons Pyongyang has resumed rapid missile testing.

The economic woes caused by the government's pandemic-prevention policies also provide the U.S. with a unique opportunity to engage North Korea.

"We are prepared to work cooperatively with the DPRK to address areas of humanitarian concerns regardless of progress on denuclearization," Sung Kim, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy, told reporters on Tuesday.

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