North Korea’s Missile Firings Trigger Reactions from Rising Powers
North Korea’s failed missile test on March 22 followed on the heels of four test firing of missiles, three of which landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. These triggered sharp and diverging commentary from rising powers in the region.
There was a variety of responses from South Korean officials. South Korea’s National Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun reportedly “called for reopening dialogue with North Korea to stop its provocations,” and said “sanctions alone can neither solve the nuclear issue nor make the situation any better.” The Speaker continued, “it is important to acknowledge North Korean leader Kim Jung-un as a negotiation partner.” South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Yun Byung-se in turn affirmed that Seoul and Washington are on the same page with regard to North Korea’s provocations.
There was also extensive and nuanced commentary from South Korean newspapers. Many called for international cooperation and emphasized the need for South Korea to step up its role.
- An editorial in The Hankyoreh, a liberal leaning newspaper, said, “Unless South Korea, the US, and China can find common ground on their North Korea policy sometime soon, the nuclear issue is only to get worse, and the security framework in Northeast Asia more uncertain.” The commentator added, “Seoul must steer other countries toward a resolution to North Korea nuclear issue.”
- The Kyunghyang Shinmun, another liberal leaning paper, thought “A preemptive strike on North Korea can lead to an all-out war.” Therefore, the South Korean government “should also remind the U.S. that a North Korea policy that goes against the views of South Korea, particularly a preemptive strike on the North as a preventive measure is unacceptable.”
- At least one commentator thought that it was “time to engage North Korea.”
Some commentators expressed disappointment and even dismay in South Korea’s handling of the North Korean threat.
- A commentator in The Hankyoreh stated, “The administration of President Park Geun-hye bears much of the blame for South Korea’s diplomatic and security dilemma. This is the result of hasty decisions about the THAAD deployment, the comfort women issue and inter-Korean relations.”
- An editorial in The Korea Herald bemoaned, “Then take a look at our National Assembly. There are two proposals that stand opposite to each other – one similar to the US resolution and the other calling for a halt to the THAAD deployment… It is sad we have a parliament which cannot adopt a bipartisan resolution on an issue that even a foreign legislature is so concerned about. We may have to give up hope that the National Assembly can fill part of the power vacuum created by the impeachment of Park.”
- An editorial in The Dong-A Ilbo, conservative leaning paper, came up with a list of assertive policy recommendations for South Korea. It stated, “Seoul and Washington should complete deployment of THAAD as soon as possible on the basis of a robust South Korea-U.S. alliance. Seoul should also remove any defense loopholes by deploying an additional THAAD system. It also should start process to gain consent from the international community to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea. The South should also strengthen its capacity to carry out offensive operations including preemptive strikes and an operation to decapitate the North Korean leader during the South Korea-U.S. joint military drills.”
While there was unanimous agreement regarding the importance of China as a major player, some worried that China might be a spoiler.
- In early March an article in The Korea Herald thought that “Beijing will likely stand by Pyongyang, no matter how much closer South Korea gets to China economically.”
- In mid-March, an editorial in The Korea Herald argued yet again that “sanctions on North Korea were porous” because “China has often opened a back door by which North Korea could avoid punishments.” It continued, “Opening a side door is an act of fooling the international community. China should stop gesturing at slapping on sanctions.” Another editorial agreed: “As long as a side door is open, efforts to denuclearize North Korea cannot but fail.”
- An editorial in Korea Joongang Daily, a conservative leaning paper, opined, “We must ensure tighter enforcement of sanctions on Pyongyang. China must cooperate more rigorously to contain North Korea as it is clear that Pyongyang is defying Beijing as well as international calls to stop its nuclear development. China must remember that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities endanger China as much as they do the Korean Peninsula.”
Some commented on the role of the US and Trump administration as well.
- A commentator from The Korea Times opined, “The US should realize that what is driving the North Korean nuclear effort is precisely fear of a military attack. Threatening such an attack is unlikely to cause Pyongyang to abandon its efforts but rather have the opposite effect.”
- An editorial in The Korea Herald was optimistic that the Trump administration will address the North Korean problems with utmost seriousness. Although the commentator noted that President Trump has not laid out concrete plans for his administration’s future course of action, Trump calling the North “a big, big problem” and a “really, really important” subject, and saying that he would deal with it “very strongly” and missile threat is “a very, very high priority” for him seemed to have convinced the commentator, as he stated, “these expressions are strong enough to make one believe that the Trump administration will be proactive.”
North Korea’s missile tests have hit Japan particularly hard. According to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s advisor, the Prime Minister “plans to bolster Japan’s capabilities to counter increased threats from North Korea.” There were also reports of other Japanese politicians expressing a desire for the ability to better protect Japan.
Japanese media voiced multiple concerns.
- According to an editorial in The Mainichi, a liberal leaning and third ranked daily circulation in Japan, “the [North Korean] launch may be a noisy protest against joint military exercises by the United States and South Korea that began on March 1.” But it thinks that such a reaction can backfire for North Korea because it may lead the Trump administration to alter the American policy of “strategic patience” toward North Korea, and bring “a dark cloud over North Korea’s relations with Southeast Asia, a region with many countries hitherto friendly to the isolated nation.” The newspaper also noted that “the launch is likely to have left Beijing incensed,” especially since “the launch took place during the National People’s Congress, an important political event in China, and accordingly caused China to lose face.”
- A Kyodo News commentator expressed pessimism regarding maintenance of peace and stability in northeast Asia. It stated, “North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities are already an existential threat to South Korea and Japan and will soon be a direct threat to the continental United States. Washington should make unambiguously clear that it will deter, defend and if necessary defeat the North Korean military threat to ourselves and our allies.”
- Nikkei Asian Review, a conservative, center-right business paper, published an opinion piece titled “Trump’s North Korea credibility crisis.” The commentator argued that despite Trump’s tough talk on North Korea, if Trump were to launch a preemptive strike against North Korea, “he would need to convince the American people, and the world, that U.S. intelligence about the North’s nuclear capabilities was solid, that a threat from Pyongyang was imminent, that all other non-military options were exhausted, and that he had a plan for success.” However, given the credibility gap Trump currently faces, the commentator was not convinced that Trump’s tough talk would have much impact on North Korean behavior.
North Korea’s recent provocative actions seems to have gone too far even for China as Beijing announced in February a ban on all coal imports from North Korea until the end of the year. Commentators say that such action shows “Beijing’s resolve to implement UN Security Council resolutions punishing North Korea over its nuclear program.” Alongside expressing an intention to comply with the UNSC resolutions, China has reportedly “implemented high trade barriers against [South] Korean companies, virtually banned Chinese tour agencies from offering group tours to Korea, and restricted Korean cultural content” in retaliation for THAAD deployment. However, “the Chinese government officially denies that it is employing any retaliation.”
Regarding the recent North Korean missile launches, several Chinese commentators blamed the US for the provocation.
- An editorial in China Daily, the official state run newspaper, stated that “the test-firing of the Pukguksong-2 intermediate-range ballistic missile… might have been an invitation for direct interaction with the United States.”
- An op-ed in Global Times, a nationalist newspaper, expressed a similar view. It stated that “the launch is widely believed to be a further protest against the joint US-South Korea military exercises and related to the recent Northeast Asia trip of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.”
Global Times featured many editorials which debated what the role of China is in dealing with and taming North Korea.
- One commentator contended, “China needs to keep a sober mind regarding what it should do and what it shouldn’t. Stopping North Korea from developing nuclear weapons is the primary goal of our Peninsula policy.”
- Another argued that “Beijing has a compelling obligation to persuade Pyongyang” because there are still communication channels between Beijing and Pyongyang. The commentator also thought that “Washington and Seoul need to make an adjustment to make Pyongyang believe it will be more secure if it abandons nuclear weapons.”
- One commentator defended China’s role and accused the US and South Korea for disregarding China’s mediation efforts: “China has participated in the tough sanctions the US and South Korea launched against the North, while the two countries rejected China’s proposal that the US and South Korea suspend their military exercises in exchange for a halt of North Korea’s nuclear activities. The US and South Korea often accuse China of being uncooperative, but the reality is they are uncooperative over China’s mediation.”
- Another one responded to several western media which called for China to put more pressure on North Korea; it stated, “Those who believe Beijing should do more or that Beijing holds the key to solving the North Korean nuclear issue are either ignorant or calculating strategists. China supports any move that helps stabilize the Korean Peninsula. It is time for South Korea, the US and North Korea to engage with each other.”
It was noted that “Russia’s delegation to the U.N. reported Moscow is fulfilling its obligations under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2321,” which is aimed at North Korea. TASS reported that after talking with Japanese foreign and defense ministers, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said “We are unanimous with our Japanese partners that North Korea should rigorously comply with all UN Security Council resolutions…We believe that the UN sanctions imposed on Pyongyang should be seen not as a punishment tool but as an incentive to bring the situation back to the political and negotiation track.”
Nationalist media urged caution in dealing with North Korea.
- According to Dmitry Verkhoturov, a Sputnik political analyst and expert on North Korea, the “military option” against North Korea should be off table.”
- An op-ed in RBTH argued that “The American deployment will obviously not stop North Koreain its efforts to perfect missile technology. On the contrary, now Pyongyang will work on its missiles with renewed vigor, and attempt to create a system that would be able to overcome THAAD.”
There has been little official reaction to North Korea’s missile tests since the foreign ministry’s denunciation of the North Korean missile and nuclear weapons programs in September of 2016. The foreign ministry stated that the North Korean nuclear weapon program was “unacceptable” and that as a “firm defender of a nuclear free world, Brazil condemns attitudes that violate the pertinent resolutions of the United Nations Security Council and increase tensions on the Korean peninsula.”
More recent media stories have reported on worldwide reactions to the recent ballistic missiles launches by North Korea.
- Globo reported on the North Korean launch of four missile tests in the direction of Japan and noted the international outrage. It also reported that while China condemned the launch, Beijing also pointed out that U.S. and South Korean military forces were conducting exercises in the region.
- The Journal do Brasil reported on the United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent trip to Seoul where he stated that the U.S. “strategic patience” had run out and called for the complete denuclearization of North Korea. He also defended the deployment of the U.S. anti-missile defense system, THAAD, in South Korea despite Chinese opposition.