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North Korea Takes Aim at Seoul as Biden Mulls Policy Options

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North Korea Takes Aim at Seoul as Biden Mulls Policy Options

After Pyongyang’s resumed missile testing, Seoul and Washington are having difficulties finding a way to resume dialogue.

North Korea Takes Aim at Seoul as Biden Mulls Policy Options

In this Feb. 10, 2018 file photo, Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, and North Korea’s nominal head of state Kim Yong Nam, attend a women’s hockey game at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea.

Credit: AP Photo/Felipe Dana

Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, explicitly criticized South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s dual attitude in a statement released through the Korean Central News Agency on March 30. The statement was attributed to Kim in her position as deputy head of the Labor Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department.

Kim cited Moon’s speech criticizing North Korea’s missile launch on West Sea Defense Day on March 26. Moon attended the ceremony to mark the event and criticized North Korea’s missile tests by saying that he knows the public’s concern over such actions. He added that it is never desirable to create difficulties for the atmosphere of dialogue.

In response, Kim Yo Jong fired back that it is not desirable to label the North’s missile test as a threat while South Korean missile tests are accepted as necessary for a peaceful Korean Peninsula. Kim also expressed that she could not help but be shocked by Moon’s remarks and contradictions.

In the statement, Kim confirmed that the missile North Korea launched last week was a ballistic missile, a somewhat unusual admission given that ballistic missile launches by the North are a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

She also sarcastically said that Seoul is following “the gangster-like logic of the U.S.” in saying that North Korea’s “right to self-defense” is a violation of the U.N. resolutions and a threat to the international community. She slammed Moon as a “parrot raised by America,” but did not directly criticize U.S. President Joe Biden, even though the Biden administration similarly condemned North Korea’s ballistic missile launch.

In her earlier statement criticizing the South Korea-U.S. joint military drills in early March, Kim also hinted at worsening inter-Korean relations, raising the possibility of scrapping the inter-Korean military agreement and dismantling the Committee for Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, which is an important organization communicating with its South Korean counterparts.

Based on these signals, experts say that with the end of Moon’s term around the corner, Pyongyang is less likely to improve relations with Seoul and attempt new dialogue.

Meanwhile, Moon’s current approval rating is about 34 percent, the lowest since his inauguration, according to local pollsters. His falling approval rating is mainly due to real estate issues, including an ongoing land speculation scandal, but his flagging popularity will not help solve the problem with North Korea. His highest approval rating was about 83 percent, after the summit meeting with Kim Jong Un in 2018.

An official of the Unification Ministry explained to reporters that the Ministry expressed regret over some expressions used in the KCNA statement, saying that Kim’s remarks ignored the minimum respect or basic courtesy toward the other party needed for dialogue and cooperation. However, the ministry added that its expression of regret over Kim’s statement would not impact efforts to revive inter-Korean dialogue, and that it would continue to work toward improving relations with North Korea. 

A senior official of the Presidential Blue House also expressed regret and demanded the North show its will for communication in an interview with local reporters.

While the Moon administration is trying to resume dialogue with North Korea despite Pyongyang’s continued provocations and harsh words, experts say more effective measures should be taken to prevent the North’s missile programs from being further strengthened.

Through Kim’s statement “North Korea has expressed its position to continue developing weapons capabilities and launching missiles if the Biden administration makes no progress in U.S.-North Korea relations,” Kim Young-jun, a professor at Korea National Defense University and a member of the National Security Advisory Board for the Presidential Blue House, told The Diplomat.

The professor also said that North Korea will not take a passive approach toward U.S.-North Korea relations under the Biden administration. The latest statement was meant to pressure Seoul to move closer to the North’s preferred approach.

“If North Korea tests nuclear weapons or launches long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles in the future, it can be a signal that Pyongyang has given up on talking with Washington,” Kim said.

The National Intelligence Service (NIS) told the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee on March 29 that the short-range ballistic missiles launched by North Korea on March 25 could be equipped with small nuclear weapons.

The NIS explained at a plenary session of the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee that small nuclear weapons could theoretically be loaded onto the type of missiles test fired by North Korea, known as the KN-23. It is the first time that authorities have mentioned the possibility of a “tactical nuclear weapon” for a missile tested by North Korea.

Experts say that KN-23 is not easy to track because it has a “pull-up” maneuver that descends from its peak altitude to avoid the South Korea-U.S. interceptor network. After pulling up, the missile flies horizontally at a lower altitude before rising. North Korea said a “pull-up” maneuver was made in its missile launch on March 26. It is believed that Seoul and Washington failed to fully track the missile’s path amid its anomalous flight pattern. If the missile flew 600 kilometers as North Korea claimed, the entire territory of the South would be within striking range.

White House Spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a briefing on March 29 that Biden currently has no intention to seek another sit-down with Kim Jong Un, signaling a different approach from former President Donald Trump. The Biden administration wants to reach agreement between working-level officials before moving to high-level diplomacy.

In 2018, Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to meet with the North Korean leader in person. Many South Koreans were highly supportive of the effort, but the hopes were blighted after Trump left the 2019 Hanoi Summit without reaching any agreement.

The failure at the Hanoi Summit put up huge barriers for both Washington and Pyongyang to resume dialogue. North Korea has already made clear that it will return to the negotiating table only if the United States lifts the devastating economic sanctions. However, the Biden administration – which is currently finalizing a policy review on North Korea – says that the dialogue can only take place if the North actually takes productive moves toward its complete denuclearization.

In other words, the two countries are confronting each other with contradictory unilateral demands.

“The Biden administration will continue implementing existing sanctions regardless of the recent ballistic missile test,” Clint Work, a fellow at the Stimson Center, told The Diplomat. Work added that it is difficult for Biden to think “outside of the box” about North Korea, particularly as it is just one of among many different foreign affairs issues facing his administration.

The barriers to progress are “higher than before as the United States and North Korea failed to reach an agreement in Hanoi” Work said, and there’s currently little space to devote more attention to the matter.

Some South Korean hawks have demanded that Seoul improve its military ability by weaponizing advanced missiles, or even pursuing its own nuclear weapons to directly counter the North. But Work said there is no viable military approach to solve the problem.