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North Korea and the limits of missile diplomacy


The Korean peninsula was the site of “duelling” missile tests last week, said Michael Lee in Korea JoongAng Daily (Seoul). On Wednesday, North Korea launched two tactical ballistic missiles, from a train, in defiance of UN resolutions. South Korea, for its part, conducted a submarine-launched ballistic missile test, becoming the first nation without nuclear weapons to have that capability. The tests came soon after North Korean state media said that a long-range cruise missile capable of hitting Japan had been fired into the sea 930 miles away. Cruise missiles can carry a nuclear warhead, and are of particular concern because they fly low and can change direction in flight, evading defence systems. 

This arms race had been widely anticipated, said Jung Da-min in Korea Times (Seoul). Donald Trump’s attempt to make a grand bargain with Kim Jong Un failed; President Biden’s efforts to bring him to the negotiating table have been ineffective. In the summer, Pyongyang restarted its plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon. In response, South Korean president Moon Jae-in’s policy has been to strengthen his nation’s missile capabilities. Submarine-launched missiles, of the kind his forces have developed, are vital to maintaining a “retaliatory strike” capability: a country that has them can hit back hard, even if its military installations have been devastated by a nuclear attack. The pace has picked up since Biden met Moon at a summit in May and agreed to scrap restrictions on South Korea’s missile programme.

North Korea’s intentions are now harder than ever to read, said Michelle Ye Hee Lee in The Washington Post. Pyongyang sealed its borders during the pandemic, excluding even its only major trading partner, China. This prompted an exodus of foreigners – diplomats, aid workers, business envoys – who usually provided some insights into life in the totalitarian country. But the UN believes its people are suffering “severe” food shortages, and that there is a risk of a major famine. The reasons for its missile tests are still clear enough, said Christoph Bluth and Owen Greene on The Conversation. North Korea uses tests to demonstrate to its own population that “it is a great and powerful nation”. As far as the world outside is concerned, they are designed to “mitigate diplomatic isolation and as leverage to generate international aid”. There are, at present, no credible diplomatic initiatives for engaging with Pyongyang. So we can “expect further missile launches – and possibly nuclear weapons tests – in the near future”.

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