Well, that didn’t take long: five days after the inauguration of a pro-engagement president in Seoul, North Korea successfully launched a ballistic missile, defiantly vowing afterwards that such tests would continue at “any time and place” that Pyongyang’s leadership deemed fit. What’s worse, the Norks’ latest test appears to mark a meaningful milestone in Pyongyang’s march toward an inter-continental ballistic missile, as analyst John Schilling explains over at 38 North:
North Korea’s latest successful missile test represents a level of performance never before seen from a North Korean missile. The missile would have flown a distant of some 4500 kilometers if launched on a maximum trajectory. It appears to have not only demonstrated an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) that might enable them to reliably strike the US base at Guam, but more importantly, may represent a substantial advance to developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
Apart from its threat to the United States, North Korea’s latest provocation poses a clear test of Moon Jae-in. South Korea’s president was elected amid pledges to de-escalate tensions with the North and reconsider the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system, and he wasted no time beginning talks with Beijing on those issues last week. But Pyongyang’s latest test could complicate Moon’s nascent efforts at diplomacy, reminding an already skeptical public that promises of good-faith negotiations are no guarantee of responsible behavior from the North.
Indeed, the test is likely to harden a political reality that Moon is already confronting: he has neither the numbers in the National Assembly nor a popular mandate to make controversial moves on North Korea, like reversing THAAD or reinstating the cancelled Kaesong Industrial Zone project. Reuters:
“Moon will first have to tackle issues which have some kind of common ground among political parties and the public, not divisive issues such as THAAD,” said Kim Jun-seok, a political science professor at Dongguk University. […]
“Unless Moon is out of his mind, he shouldn’t continue to drag on with the THAAD issue. He really can’t oppose it anymore,” said Hong Moon-jong, a member of the conservative Liberty Korea Party, the second-largest party with 107 seats, behind the 120 seats held by the ruling party.
Two other major opposition parties, the centrist People’s Party and the conservative Bareun Party that together have 60 seats, also support the deployment.
In this fraught climate, Moon may tread lightly before granting significant concessions to Beijing or launching direct talks with Pyongyang. And indeed, his initial reaction to Sunday’s missile test suggest that may be the case. In sternly denouncing the test, Moon pointedly stated that “dialogue is possible only when North Korea changes its behavior.”
If that truly is Moon’s standard, then it’s quite likely there won’t be much of a change forthcoming.