On 10 August North Korea — according to South Korean military sources — fired two unidentified projectiles into the sea off its eastern coast, around the northeast city of Hamhung, known to house a production site for solid-fuel rocket engines.
The firing was not a first of its kind. Since North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un met US President Donald Trump at the end of June in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), and their agreement to resume bilateral negotiations on the question of denuclearisation, North Korea fire-tested short-range missiles on four prior occasions.
In fact, the Saturday launch followed the firing of two newly-adopted short-range ballistic missiles four days earlier. The test-firing that took place 10 August is the fifth since 25 July.
President Trump tried to downplay the significance of these missile tests. He said on 9 August, that he had received what he described as a “very beautiful letter” from Kim Jong-Un in which the latter stressed that he was “not happy” with these tests. He explained in the letter — according to the American president — that the tests were in response to American-South Korean military drills held this month.
The United States and South Korea kicked off their computer-simulated exercise as an alternative to normal large-scale military exercises that had been the norm before Trump requested the Pentagon to scale them down as a gesture of good will and a confidence-building measure as well, after his first summit with Kim Jong-Un in Sentosa, Singapore, on 12 June 2018.
These exercises have always been perceived by the political leadership in Pyongyang as a precursor for the land invasion of North Korea.
The August exercises, known as Dong Maeng, are scaled-back versions of the annual exercises called Ulchi Freedom Guardian.
The new US secretary of defense, Mark Esper, explained that the United States made adjustments after the Sentosa summit and that the United States is still abiding by these adjustments in order “to open the door for diplomacy”, while at the same time, “We need to maintain our readiness.”
Another senior American defence official elaborated saying the United States would “like to see [the North Koreans] also respond in a way that says… they want to create space for diplomacy and work through these issues at the negotiating table”.
On the missile tests, Secretary Esper echoed the position taken by President Trump in minimising their significance. In Tokyo in the first week of August, Esper pointed out that while the United States takes these launchings “very seriously”, “we monitor them, we try to understand what they are doing and why.” He added: “We also need to be careful not to overreact and not to get ourselves in a situation where diplomacy is closed off.”
Till the writing of this article, no date had been officially announced for the resumption of negotiations between the United States and North Korea.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on 7 August, that he was hopeful talks would resume and that the US side was planning for negotiations in a couple of weeks.
However, two serious military developments have come to cast doubt on the strategic context of future denuclearisation talks.
The first was brought up by the official news agency of North Korea, KCNA. On 14 August, it published a statement in which it criticised a decision by the United States to study the possible deployment of ground-to-ground medium-range missiles in the Asian region and that South Korea has been singled out as a place for such deployment, which it considered a “reckless act of escalating regional tension, an act that may spark off a new Cold War and an arms race in the Far Eastern region.” The statement considered the missiles a “new offensive weapon in South Korea”.
The background of this statement is remarks by Secretary Esper earlier this month in which he said he was in favour of placing ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles in Asia.
Officials in the South Korean Ministry of Defence denied to Reuters news agency that South Korea has discussed with the Pentagon the deployment of such missiles.
The second alarming development from the North Korean point of view was the unveiling of South Korea’s Five-Year Defence Blueprint for 2020-2024.
The plan calls for spending $239.88 billion, and to earmark — out of the total — the sum of $85.54 billion for improving defence capabilities, the balance allocated to force management.
In order to advance its independent, low-tier missile shield, the South Korean military plans to expand its detection coverage of ballistic missiles by securing two upgraded early warning radars for deployment in around 2020.
In the meantime, the plan calls for the enhancement of South Korea’s multi-layered interception capabilities by deploying the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 system and Cheolmaee 11 missiles, wrapping up with the deployment of L-SAM, long-range surface-to-air missiles.
On the other hand, the South Korean military blueprint aims at boosting its “strategic target” strike capabilities against nuclear and missiles facilities via better precision-guided missiles able to be launched from the ground, sea, submarines and fighter jets.
Under such circumstances, it is difficult to see why the North Koreans will trust the diplomatic path and why they should go along with denuclearisation.
Even — and this highly hypothetical — if Kim Jong-Un is eager to reach a deal in the near future with the United States, it is difficult to see how he could convince the top brass in his army and the senior cadres of the ruling party to agree to denuclearisation.
President Trump said on 10 August that a “nuclear -free North Korea will lead to one of the most successful countries in the world”.
Such a vision is still a long way off, as an arms race in Northeast Asia looms on the horizon.
* The writer is former assistant foreigen minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Room for diplomacy