Kim Jong Un's latest missile hit its mark: US-South Korea relations

North Korea has fired a shot across the bow of the U.S. and South Korean battleship of military and diplomatic alliance. The shot was in the form of the year’s first missile test, which the North’s propaganda machine claimed was a hypersonic model, five times the speed of sound.

The test shot was a slap in the face of South Korea’s appeasement-minded President Moon Jae-in and a warning to U.S. military commanders and diplomats struggling to preserve the alliance while Moon looks for reconciliation and dialogue with the North. Forget it, was the message from North Korean leader Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnNorth Korea fires two more missiles, calls US sanctions a 'provocation' Biden strategy on North Korea under pressure over missile launches Kim Jong Un's latest missile hit its mark: US-South Korea relations MORE. Don’t even think about talking with us, Kim was reminding Moon, if you insist on a strong alliance with the United States.

Never mind that the missile, as South Korean defense experts later determined, was not truly hypersonic, and forget that North Korea is in deep economic trouble, as Kim has made clear in speeches to the party faithful. Nor does it matter that the COVID-19 pandemic has driven the North into its deepest isolation in several years. National pride in the country’s ability to produce new and better missiles, and no doubt nuclear warheads to attach to them, was manifest in the language of the announcement in Rodong Sinmun, the daily bible of the ruling Worker’s Party, of which Kim is general secretary.

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“The successive success in the test launches of the hypersonic missile sector have strategic significance,” said the announcement, carried in English by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency. “They hasten a task for modernizing the strategic armed force of the state put forward at the 8th Party Congress and help fulfill the most important core task out of the five top priority tasks for the strategic arms sector in the five-year plan.”

This bold boast may have seemed like boilerplate we’ve been hearing for years. No one’s expecting a second Korean War just yet, and no one believes North Korea can do much militarily while fighting off so many other problems, notably the hunger of poverty-stricken people. 

The missile shot, however, did create a tizzy. It was the second time North Korea has claimed to have fired a hypersonic missile. Though it may not have lived up to the hype from Pyongyang, it represented Kim’s determination to maintain his nuclear and missile program regardless of sanctions and warnings. In response, Moon is still appealing for dialogue, apparently regretting that Kim had to behave so rudely, so early in the year. And the U.S. is likely frustrated by Moon’s insistence on moderation and worried about the future of the U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance.

Moon’s heartfelt plea to “not give up hope for dialogue” may not be as absurd as it sounds. Perhaps the U.S. might seriously consider a concession or two. It could ease up on sanctions, or offer medical assistance, as conciliatory gestures — just enough, perhaps, to draw the North Koreans to the table.

America, though, would still have a problem with another alliance partner: Japan. In Tokyo, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida seemed considerably more upset by the latest missile shot than Moon. Kishida did not mingle his plea “to strengthen our surveillance more than ever” with sighing entreaties to talk things over. Japan — even more likely a target than South Korea of a North Korean strike — does not share Moon’s desire for summitry with Kim, or even for gentle diplomacy that the Japanese are pretty sure will be no more successful than all the other diplomatic dalliances with North Korea for decades.

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America’s response showed how carefully the test had hit its mark in Washington. The best that Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenUS calls on North Korea to halt 'unlawful and destabilizing' missile launches Wendy Sherman takes leading role as Biden's 'hard-nosed' Russia negotiator Pacific tsunami threat recedes, volcano ash hinders response MORE could say was that North Korea’s missile and nuclear program is “an ongoing threat.” To which, in a virtual conference with Japan’s Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, he said “our alliance must not only strengthen the tools we have but also develop new ones” — diplomatic verbiage as familiar as the rhetoric from Pyongyang.

In a real sense, the latest test shot found a secondary target in exploiting differences between Tokyo and Seoul. No matter how hard Washington tries, the U.S. just cannot convince either the Japanese or the South Koreans to treat one another as de facto alliance partners. There will never be a tripartite pact of the U.S., Japan and South Korea, but at least Washington would hope the Japanese and South Koreans would cooperate militarily as friends if not allies. But that’s a lot easier said than done.

Besides upsetting the Japanese, the test hit its main target: the U.S.-South Korean alliance. The response of right-wingers in Korea, including high-level military officers, might be to challenge the North by strengthening defenses, vowing to stand firm against threats and to cooperate with the U.S. on joint exercises. Moon has made a show of increasing defense spending, but he does not want to incite Kim with war games. U.S. and South Korean forces may conduct exercises on computers, but that’s about as far as they will go for now. 

The success of a North Korean defector to South Korea in making his way through the barbed-wire fence on the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas and returning to North Korea showed the weakness of the South Koreans on the ground. The defector — who had come south more than a year ago the same way, by jumping across fences on both sides and weaving through a minefield, visible on surveillance cameras — exposed the need for the U.S-South Korean alliance.

South Korean “patrols should have upgrades to mobile equipment,” said Bruce Bechtol, who has written books and studies on North Korean military issues since serving as a marine along the DMZ and then as an intelligence analyst at the Department of Defense. It’s “unlikely that U.S. numbers will ever be beefed up again,” he said in an email to me. “Things have become more lax on the DMZ on the southern side, but the North remains defiant and unrelenting in its guardianship on the northern side of the line.”

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The same might be said for South Korea’s response to the missile shot. After all the tutting and regretting, the South Koreans are no better protected now than before. Instead, they’re at odds with the U.S., and also Japan, on what to do while North Korea remains firm as ever in testing missiles and making nuclear warheads. North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test in September 2017. Might it try a seventh? 

North Korea’s missile may not have been as terrific as indicated in Rodong Sinmun, which said the launch “reconfirmed the flight control and stability of the missile in the active-flight stage and assessed the performance of the new lateral movement technique applied to the detached hypersonic gliding warhead.” It did, however, appear to deepen the divide between South Korea and the United States, which may have been Kim Jong Un’s primary goal.

Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.