North Korea tested several short-range projectiles Saturday, May 4, morning, according to reports from South Korea, which would make this their first such launch since 2017.
Two years ago, Pyongyang had tested an intercontinental ballistic missile reportedly for the last time; but this week’s firing from the eastern coast of Hodo peninsula has plunged the stalled denuclearisation talks with the US in further jeopardy and escalated tensions between the two nuclear powers.
North Korea “fired a number of short-range missiles from its Hodo peninsula near the east coast town of Wonsan to the north-eastern direction from 09:06 (00:06 GMT) to 09:27,” the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in an initial statement, later using the vaguer term “projectiles”, which may include ballistic missiles, rockets or use of a multi-rocket launcher.
The unidentified projectiles reportedly flew between 70 km and 200 km (45-125 miles) before landing in the Sea of Japan, although Japan has denied finding any debris in their waters so far.
“At present, our military has intensified surveillance and vigilance to prepare for North Korea’s additional launches,” South Korea, which is in a military standoff with the North, said in a statement, adding that Seoul and Washington were “working closely together and maintaining their full preparedness”.
In response to Friday’s events in Hodo, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “We are aware of North Korea’s actions tonight. We will continue to monitor as necessary,” according to CNN. Late Saturday, Trump responded with confidence that Kim is still keen on not breaking his promise to the US, CNBC reported. He still believes a nuclear deal will happen.
Despite talks, NK refuses to stop testing
The event confirms what Pyongyang had announced mid-April about testing a new “Kim Jong-un attended a test“—for the first time since US President Donald Trump began meeting the country’s leader Kim Jong Un, and just months after the foiled Hanoi summit between the two.
At that point, it was presumed that the tested weapon was a short-range missile although analysts believed it could be launched from land, sea or air. In a report from the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Kim had praised that test as a “great historic event in strengthening the combat capability of the People’s Army”.
Technically speaking, firing a short-range missile does not violate the tentative terms of agreement; last year, Kim agreed to stop nuclear testing and launching intercontinental ballistic missiles but the promise to abstain from testing extended only to long range or nuclear missiles, such as ICBMs that can hit mainland US.
However, this move betrays Kim’s impatience against Washington’s refusal to lift economic sanctions until North Korea takes serious and verifiable steps to dismantle his nuclear weapons programme.
Furthermore, the Hodo site used to be a notable launching port for cruise and long-range artillery missiles in the past, according to the BBC. The question on a lot of minds, naturally, is how long till North Korea goes back again?
Here’s what led to this
Global concern over Pyongyang’s proliferating nuclear weapons programme “eased dramatically” in 2018 when Kim indicated his willingness to meet his South Korean counterpart President Moon Jae-in and participate in negotiations with Trump, provided the withdrawal of US sanctions on North and demilitarisation of South were on the table.
Despite making headway with vague and broad promises in Singapore in June 2018, talks appeared effectively over this year when the Vietnam meeting ended abruptly without an agreement. That sent political watchers in a tizzy of wild speculation again.
Qrius reported after the Vietnam summit that it is highly imprudent to assume North Korea would ever give up its nuclear weapons, and the talks could be a ploy to extract diplomatic gains and concessions from the US without having real progress to show for when it came to denuclearisation.
When US National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State rejected Kim’s push for gradual denuclearisation, North Korea swiftly asked for the two to be taken off the negotiations. Meanwhile, the country continues its development of nuclear weapons.
Experts estimate that North Korea has 30 to 60 nuclear warheads, and they say it might have an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the continental United States. Its conventional artillery weapons could also decimate Seoul, the capital of South Korea.
Kim’s regime that hoists itself atop its nuclear clout admitted last month to having developed a small nuclear bomb small that can fit on a long-range missile, after satellite images captured activity in North Korea’s main nuclear site despite the ongoing negotiations. Reports that the country may even be reprocessing radioactive material into bomb fuel have also emerged since then.
What can this mean?
Pyongyang is admittedly frustrated with the persisting lack of breakthrough and the inflexibility on Trump’s part who has adopted a policy of maximum pressure of late.
But what Kim hopes to achieve by reminding the US of its growing weapons capabilities during peace talks is not clear. A return to the days of nuclear threats, tension, and name calling is not going to relax sanctions, and certainly not help in Kim’s latest drive to make North Korea’s image more conducive to sustaining foreign trade. Thus, the recent uptick in testing can only be a means to gain leverage over the US.
One cannot also rule out Kim’s meeting last month with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the very first time. Between the Hanoi summit and Moscow meet, Kim also set a deadline for Trump, saying the US had until the end of this year to come up with viable terms. All eyes are now fixed on Trump to arrange a third meeting and make it work, or accept that he got played right from the start.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.
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