Two Faces of North Korea’s Missile Launches

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Two Faces of North Korea’s Missile Launches

Another provocation from Pyongyang, but the words this time around are interesting.

On February 27, North Korea launched four projectiles believed to be short-range ballistic missiles from Kitdaeryong in Anbyon, Kangwon province. This was followed by another missile launch several days later, when the reclusive country launched two additional projectiles from Wonsan region, almost hitting a Chinese commercial jet. The tests are most likely a protest against “Key Resolve” and “Foal Eagle,” U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises that began on February 24 and will continue until April 18.

This somewhat platitudinous juncture may once again trigger the question of what the family reunions and preceding interaction between the two Koreas were all about. If one considers only the act of launching the projectiles, it may seem to imply another setback for the stability of inter-Korean relations, possibly in contradiction to the mildly positive outlook of my previous article on the implications of family reunions.

However, foreign policy is analyzed not only by deeds but also by words. Especially in a one-man regime like North Korea, official utterances take on great significance. With that in mind, one could reach the surprising conclusion that this year North Korea may actually be trying to keep the missile issue out of inter-Korean relations. Look carefully into the statements made by North Korea concerning the launches, and you will find that North Korea is explicitly refraining from criticizing or even directly mentioning South Korea.

In the past, it has been customary for North Korea to include South Korea when criticizing the United States in its statements protesting joint military exercises. In 2011, for instance, Pyongyang delivered a “Statement by the Supreme Command” through its Korean Central Television (KCTV) condemning South Korea: “belligerent war-mongers of South Chosun’s (South Korea’s) puppet military authorities seek to make a mess out of the large-scale anti-republican war practice” and “if a single bullet drops in our inviolable territorial waters, airspace, and territory, the sea of fire will extend to the Blue House (Seoul), and burn the stronghold of the traitors to its extermination.”

This practice certainly continued last year. On March 26, 2013, when North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a protest at the joint military exercise, it said, “this situation on the verge of a nuclear war has been aroused by provocative machinations by the U.S. and its South Chosun (South Korea) puppet regime to engage in a nuclear war.”

This year, however, offers a vivid contrast. Pyongyang seems to have dramatically shifted its position, refraining from mentioning, and sometimes even defending, its Southern neighbor, while focusing its ire on the United States. On March 5, 2014, North Korea warned the U.S. not to interfere with the missile launches, claiming that “it is showing its painful jealousy at the improvement and detente in inter-Korean relations by forcing the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle joint military exercises.”

Three days later, KCTV “interviewed” North Korean citizens who unanimously criticized the U.S. “I cannot understand what those fools in the U.S. have in mind, to be so opportunistic as to deliberately strain the current situation,” one of the interviewees said. “If we can drive those fools in the U.S. who are suffering war-mongering disease off the planet, our people would be able to live quietly and peacefully.” Although the reports would sometimes use the expression, “the United States and its followers,” which could possibly imply South Korea, the fact that there was no explicit mentioning of the “South Korean puppet regime” shows the extent to which Pyongyang has toned down in its rhetoric towards Seoul.

The most obvious explanation for this change of behavior can be found in this year’s North Korean policy towards South Korea. Ever since its New Year’s Address, which explicitly called for an improvement in inter-Korean relations, Pyongyang has been consistent in its request for both sides to tone down the rhetoric. South Korea initially rejected the request on the grounds that North Korea lacked sincerity, but it gave in on February 14 at the high-level meeting in exchange for the token of “sincerity” provided when North Korea agreed to hold the family reunions and possibly to hold further high-level dialogues.

However, “making” promises is one thing. The fact that North Korea is actually implementing its promise to refrain from slandering the South implies a whole new level of strategic implications. According to Dr. Mun Sung-Muk, research commissioner at the Korea Research Institute for Strategy, North Korea would not risk provoking South Korea because it does not want to lose the opportunity to have economic sanctions lifted, reopen tours of Mt. Geumgang and receive additional fertilizers and rice. With these economic interests at stake, Mun believes that North Korea specifically needs the high-level meetings (not the Red Cross meetings, which is limited to the regularization of family reunions) to resolve these issues. This may well be behind North Korea’s “sincerity” in keeping its promise on the verbal attacks.

While excluding South Korea from its criticisms, North Korea seems to have doubled down on criticism of United States. According to Dr. Young-Tae Chung, senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, North Korea is “demonstrating its strong focus on improving inter-Korean relations by denouncing a foreign power.”

Of course, this does not mean that missile launches will have no influence on inter-Korean relations whatsoever. In past years, launches have many times compelled South Korea to join the United States in delivering condemnations at the UN, and they have consistently fueled South Korean efforts to strengthen the Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD), with aims to deploy PAC-3 Anti-Ballistic Missiles by 2016. Still, this year’s unprecedented silence on the subject of South Korea, even after the U.S. and South Korea jointly requested the UN Security Council to take action on March 5, is prompting some in South Korea to call for Seoul to continue to engage with North Korea.

Could this be that South Korean President Park Geun-Hye’s “Trustpolitik” is working, or is North Korea merely driven by economic imperatives to approach South Korea on friendlier terms? One thing we can confirm is that Kim Jong-un, in the third year of his regime – which some experts call the “year of stability,” – has been seeking greater consistency with the South since the beginning of the year. Whatever he is hoping for may possibly be raised at the next high-level meeting, which, many believe, is what North Korea seeks.

Hyunmin Kang is a Ph.D. candidate at the Korea University Graduate School of International Studies. He is also editor at the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, where he worked with international and North Korean teams on issues associated with the UNCOI Reports on North Korean Human Rights.