x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

North Korea missiles display defiance

The salvos went throughout the day in violation of UN resolutions and an apparent message on US Independence Day.

South Koreans watch a television showing a missile launch by North Korea at the Seoul Railway Station.
South Koreans watch a television showing a missile launch by North Korea at the Seoul Railway Station.

BEIJING // North Korea fired seven ballistic missiles off its eastern coast yesterday in a conspicuous display of its defiance against international sanctions, led by the United States, which was celebrating its independence day holiday on the same day. But as has been the case in previous missile launches and tests of its nuclear capability this year, the North's reasons for yesterday's action have as much to do with the situation at home as with trying to anger a superpower.

North Korea fired two missiles towards the Sea of Japan from a base near the eastern port city of Wonsan between 8am and 8.30am. It fired another one from the same site around 10.45am. The salvos continued throughout the day, with intervals, ending with the seventh and last one at 5.40pm, the South Korean government-controlled Yonhap news agency said, citing military officials. The latest ballistic weaponry showdown, the biggest since 2006, when it test-fired a long-range Taepodong-2 missile along with several short- and mid-range missiles - also on the US independence day - came as Washington tries to mobilise support for strict enforcement of UN sanctions to dampen Pyongyang's nuclear and missile ambitions.

South Korea's foreign ministry called the launch a clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions that ban the communist country from any activity related to a ballistic missile programme. Japan also condemned the launches. "It is a serious act of provocation against the security of neighbouring countries, including our country," Takeo Kawamura, the chief cabinet secretary, said in a statement.

"North Korea's latest action will have the international society forge a greater determination to implement the UN resolution," said Shi Yinhong, a North Korea expert at Renmin University in Beijing. Mr Shi said he believed the prime goal of North Korea's outward muscle-flexing was essentially domestic in nature. "It's mainly due to the domestic process of leadership succession. By acting tough on the outside, they want to solidify their leadership transition inside."

Lee Chun-kun, the director of the North Korean research arm at the Institute of Future Korea, a think tank in Seoul, said he agreed. "In a large measure, all of this military showdown is intended for the domestic audience." North Korea is believed to be going through a power transition from the ailing supreme leader, Kim Jong Il, to his youngest and third son, Kim Jong Un, who is still in his 20s.

Meanwhile, the missile firing date is also plainly symbolic. "North Korea did the same in 2006 as well. They fired missiles on the US Independence Day. It wants to show its people that it won't back down in the face of the US pressure," Mr Lee said. In the past few months, South Korea has put its military on a heightened state of alert, in anticipation of possible military provocation from the North. The navy's Second Fleet, for example, located near the western coastal city of Inchon, has been postponing soldiers' holidays.

Analysts say North Korea's ultimate target for military showdown is the US and, to that end, it threatens the US's close Asian ally, South Korea. All the missiles fired yesterday are estimated to have had a range of 400km to 500km, which can cover South Korea in its entirety and parts of Japan. In response to the North's military showdown, "the US should show a strong posture of deterrence, and it is also important to demonstrate its credible commitment to its alliance with South Korea", said Daniel Pinkston, a senior North Korean analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

The missile salvos were meant to test North Korea's missile capability and also to demonstrate the reliability of its weaponry to potential buyers, Mr Pinkston said. According to Mr Shi, Pyongyang's muscle-flexing would continue until it felt secure about its in-house affairs. "North Korea won't likely want to engage in dialogue now. Absolutely not. But when things settle down, the chance for talks - whether it's a six-party format or a bilateral format - will appear on the horizon again."

Mr Lee is less optimistic about the prospects for the future. "I see it as an end-game. Even if the third son, Jong Un takes over power, things will likely be very volatile in North Korea. Jong Un, still young and inexperienced, won't be able to control the old generals, who are in their 70s." There are also different factions loyal to different sons of Kim Jong Il. "North Korea is run like a dynasty. There will be a power struggle on a great scale among princes, when the king dies. Unless Jong Un gets rid of those loyal to his two older brothers, he won't be able to secure his power," Mr Lee said.

Kim Jong Il, 67, who has been ill for the past year, had not spent enough time cultivating his heir to help the junior solidify his sphere of influence and gain respect from old generals, analysts said. Uncertainty could grow even after Mr Kim dies. His death will mean that Jong Un, the heir-designate, will be no longer protected by the absolute monarch, who has protected him so far by fending off dissenting voices from different power groups.

The key is how long Mr Kim stays around. "I don't want to comment on that. But Kim Jong Il is much less healthy than before," Mr Shi said. @Email:slee@thenational.ae