North Korea fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile over Japan into the Pacific Ocean east of Hokkaido on Tuesday. It flew about 2,700 kilometers and reached a maximum height of 550 kilometers.
Unlike recent high-angle launches, it was fired at a normal angle, causing speculation it may have attempted to test the technology needed for a missile to reenter the atmosphere in an actual battle situation. Atmospheric reentry is regarded as the last hurdle to clear before perfecting an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The latest missile launch has taken the provocation-induced tensions to a higher level.
It also has revealed the North’s desire to continue test-firing missiles without regard to international sanctions until it completes the development of its missile system.
Considering that the blatant provocation came just three days after the communist state violated UN Security Council resolutions by firing short-range ballistic missiles on Saturday, expectations for dialogue seem to have gone up in smoke.
US President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talked over phone shortly after the missile launch and reportedly shared a view that now was not time to hold talks with Pyongyang.
Given that the distance from North Korea to the US Pacific island of Guam is about 3,000 kilometers, the real aim of the recent missile launch might be warning the US.
North Korea may have tried to show that its earlier threat to fire missiles toward the surroundings of the island was not an empty one.
It did not carry out the threat probably for fear of US retaliation if it actually tested missiles near Guam.
It sought to maximize the effect of its show of force by firing the missile over Japan to draw attention to the country being within its missile range.
The South Korean government responded sternly to the missile launch.
Its response was quite different from three days earlier, when Cheong Wa Dae referred to short-range missile launches as a “low-strength provocation” and “signal of a wish for dialogue.”
President Moon Jae-in instructed the military to show its ability to punish the North. Just hours after the launch, four F-15K jetfighters dropped eight bombs on a simulated target in South Korea’s northeastern province of Gangwon.
It was a swift reaction and a belated yet proper turn of position.
Whether this level of response delivered the South Korean government’s will to the North is unclear, but at the very least, Seoul needs to show that it is not impatient for dialogue.
At an immediate request from South Korea, the US and Japan, the UN convened an emergency meeting to discuss strengthening sanctions on the North.
The international community has come to the point where it has to do more than its usual response. Every time the North has provoked it, it condemned the provocation and appealed to China and Russia to join sanctions.
As a result, North Korea has become more resistant to sanctions.
This time, South Korea, together with the US and Japan, must work together to come up with ways of effective pressure and punishment.
Suspending dialogue proposals to the North is the starting point. It is time to review active responses such as interceptions. To do so, the three nations should beef up their military cooperation in detecting, tracking and shooting down missiles.
US needs to keep its strategic assets deployed constantly.
Economic sanctions against Pyongyang should be tightened to the extent that its regime will be threatened. Its crude oil supply should be halted.
If the North provokes it further, the South does not need to be hesitant to consider the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons.
According to the National Intelligence Service, North Korea will likely continue test-firing missiles until it perfects ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. It is expected to make another provocation on Sept. 9, North Korea’s foundation day.
In this situation, it is no use seeking momentum for dialogue.