When North Korean generals greeted the launch of two ballistic missiles on Thursday with collective clapping ~ visually a standing ovation ~ the impression conveyed to the world was one of collective glee over having flexed their muscles after such tests had been kept in abeyance. It was the country’s first ballistic launch after a year.
The other compulsion arguably was to showcase the launch as the first since Joe Biden assumed power over two months ago. While the United States, Japan and South Korea have condemned the tests, President Biden has been rather more emphatic. Not the least because under the resolutions of the Security Council, the government of Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang is banned from testing ballistic missiles.
The launch, Mr Biden said, was a violation of UN resolutions and that the US was consulting its partners and allies. “There will be responses and if they choose to escalate, we will respond accordingly. “But I’m also prepared for some form of diplomacy, but it has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearisation.”
According to North Korea’s official statement, the two weapons struck a test target 600 km off North Korea’s east coast, disputing Japanese assessments that they flew just over 400 km. “The development of this weapon system is of great significance in bolstering up the military power of the country and deterring all sorts of military threats,” said Ri Pyong Chol, the senior leader who oversaw the test.
President Kim Jong-un, ever so willing to convey a dire signal to America, South Korea and Japan, was not present. Pyongyang claims the new missile is able to carry a payload of 2.5 tons which would make it capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. For all that, there is no readymade answer to the obvious query ~ Why has North Korea tested the missiles now? Given the nature of geostrategy, the timeline is no less critical than the event per se.
The obvious response of countries opposed to nuclear proliferation is that the North has the wherewithal. Additionally, Pyongyang has new weapons to try out. The recent messages, notably the one advanced by President Kim’s sister, warning the United States not to cause “a stink” and that the Biden administration would “pay a price” would suggest the North is making a point.
It is hard not to wonder whether the test is not a consequence of the caveat from Kim’s powerful sister. Arguably, Pyongyang was also protesting against the extradition of its citizen, Mun Chol Myong, from Malaysia to the US, and the recent UN Human Rights Council resolution against North Korea.
Whatever the reason, the message North Korea is sending the world is very different from what it is conveying to its people. While Mr Kim is playing to the international gallery, notably the White House, by flexing his military muscles, he is in parallel trying to portray an image of economic reformer to North Koreans.