Just days after a flotilla of US and Japanese warships left the sea between Japan and the Korean Peninsula, where they had been deployed in a show of force toward Pyongyang, North Korea tested missiles designed to hit such ships.
The launches on Thursday (June 8) morning of what appeared to be surface-to-ship cruise missiles were meant to demonstrate that the North could repel forces staging a strike on the Korean Peninsula, analysts said.
South Korea’s newly elected president, Mr Moon Jae-in, convened his first national security meeting in Seoul, South Korea, on Thursday to discuss the latest missile tests, which were the fifth the North had conducted since he was elected last month, and the 10th this year.
“North Korea will only face further isolation from the international community and economic difficulties with its missile launches,” Mr Moon said at the meeting, according to a statement released by the presidential Blue House.
The launches came less than a week after the UN Security Council expanded its sanctions against Pyongyang over previous missile tests.
They also came less than 24 hours after Mr Moon’s administration said it had suspended the deployment of a US anti-missile defense system * called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD — that is meant to detect North Korean missiles and prevent them from hitting their targets.
Critics had suggested that the suspension — which appeared to be a concession to China, whose leaders strongly objected to the THAAD system, and a break with the United States on policy toward North Korea — signaled that Mr Moon was taking a much softer stance toward the North than his predecessors had.
Mr Moon sought to dispel any such perception Thursday. In his strongest language on the North since his inauguration, Mr Moon told the National Security Council that his government “will not step back even one step or make compromises on national security or on the safety of our people”.
Some analysts say that with his decision to submit THAAD to a lengthy environmental review, as well as his recent approval of sending aid groups to visit North Korea, Mr Moon is approaching North Korea as if its nuclear and missile development had not advanced in the decade since he last served in government. Mr Moon was chief of staff to former President Roh Moo-hyun, a liberal who pursued a much more open policy toward the North than his conservative successors did.
“I understand the administration’s predicament,” said Ms Duyeon Kim, a visiting senior fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum, a South Korean research institute. “It’s always a delicate balance between wanting to resolve things diplomatically and wanting to deal with North Korea the way it is today, as a growing security threat.
“But the fact of the matter is, the Moon administration needs to deal with North Korea with eyes wide open and not be stuck in a decades-old security environment,” Ms Kim said.
The North has been steadily pursuing missile tests in defiance of UN sanctions and international condemnation. According to Mr Kim Dong-yup, an analyst at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul and a retired South Korean navy commander, the tests on Thursday appeared to be of four-canister missiles on new launchers that were displayed during a military parade in Pyongyang in April.
The missiles flew about 125 miles (201km) before landing in the sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan. Two US aircraft carriers, the Carl Vinson and the Ronald Reagan, as well as Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers, had recently been in the area, and analysts said North Korea was clearly showing off its ability to hit warships as well as military bases in the region.
“If the US were to pre-emptively strike North Korea, it would use aircraft and vessels,” said Mr Yang Uk, a senior researcher at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, a research institute in Seoul, South Korea’s capital. “And in these last series of tests, North Korea is showing they can deter those strikes.”
The US Pacific Command did not immediately comment on the launches, and Japan’s response was muted. Although Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said the tests “cannot be accepted,” the Japanese government did not register a formal complaint with North Korea.
Analysts said the North Koreans had deliberately avoided testing these particular missiles while the US and Japanese warships were nearby. “The timing was interesting because these US ships and Japanese ships have left,” said Mr Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “In a way, it wasn’t too provocative.”
But Mr Michishita said the tests indicated that the North was following a strategic program of demonstrating its ability not only to reach targets farther away, but also to prevent strikes against it.
The only missiles that the North displayed in its recent military parade that had not yet been tested were intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“In a way, I kind of admire North Korea, in the sense that they have been taking logical steps,” Mr Michishita said. “They have a pretty well-thought-out strategy that they have been developing. They are not stupid. You cannot underestimate them.”