Conflict Alerts # 521, 8 June 2022
In the news
On 5 June, the North Korean military test-fired eight short-range ballistic missiles toward the sea soon after the US conducted a three-day naval drill with South Korea in the Philippine Sea. According to the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, the tests were fired between 0908 hours and 0943 hours near Sunan in Pyongyang. The Korea Herald reported that the missiles in the largest single test by North Korea flew at an altitude of 25-90 kilometres and covered 110-670 kilometres at a speed of Mach three to six. The Joint Chiefs of Staff in a statement on the tests said: “The North's continued launch of ballistic missiles are provocations which pose a significant threat to peace and security not only on the Korean Peninsula but also in the world.”
Japan responded to the test by conducting a joint military exercise with the US while the Japanese Self Defence Force raised alarm at the aggression perpetrated by North Korea. Japan’s Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi commented on the missile tests and called them intolerable while also noting that one of the missiles showed capabilities to manoeuvre and evade missile defence systems.
South Korea’s President convened a National Security Council meeting and ordered “expanded deterrence of South Korea and the United States and continued reinforcement of united defence posture." On 6 June, South Korea and the US also fired eight surface-to-surface Army Tactical Missiles System missiles into the East Sea. Seven out of the eight missiles were from the South Korean military while the US used one of its missiles. Post the launch, the Joint Chief of Staff said: “The South Korea-US combined firing of the ground-to-ground missiles demonstrated the capability and posture to launch immediate precision strikes on the origins of provocations and their command and support forces.”
Issues at large
First, continuing missile tests. The latest missile test marked the 18th provocation this year and the third after South Korea’s new President Yoon Suk-Yeol took office on 10 May. The eight missile tests were conducted by North Korea 11 days after the military tested short-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles. North Korea President Kim Jong-Un has increased the country’s focus on military weapons of mass destruction despite the diminishing economic stability and the rising COVID-19 cases in the country. The repeated missile and nuclear tests are aimed at forcing the US and the international community into accepting North Korea as a nuclear power.
Second, South Korea’s reaction to the missile tests. Yoon Suk-yeol’s policy toward North Korea is different from his predecessor Moon Jae-in, who assumed a much softer stance while dealing with its neighbour. However, President Yoon has already expressed his government’s shift from soft diplomacy to a much harsher response to North Korea’s behaviour. A tough position on North Korea was one of Yoon’s campaign strategies as well. The counter-missile tests are a by-product of Yoon’s hard-line policies and may even be considered by North Korea as an unpredictable response to its actions.
Yoon Suk-yeol’s government’s response to the missile tests is evidence of the changing political scenario on the Korean Peninsula. There is a clear shift in the conservative government’s actions as they move to adopt a coercive diplomatic approach. Kim Jong-un seems to be testing the international community’s patience with its incessant missile and nuclear tests. However, it remains to be seen if the US and its allies are capable of responding effectively and restricting further aggression by North Korea.