North Korea launched projectiles Saturday, but South Korea and the US initially saw them differently, though Seoul later agreed with Washington’s assessment.
The projectiles are presumed to have reached an altitude of 50 kilometers and have flown 250 kilometers.
Cheong Wa Dae said Sunday they were a new type of rocket or unknown projectile, while the US Pacific Command has defined them as short-range ballistic missiles.
The South Korean Ministry of National Defense revised its position Monday that they were likely to be short-range ballistic missiles.
It would have been better if the South and US had announced the same analysis results from the start. A united judgment could prevent confusion from delaying a concerted response to threats from the communist state.
The presidential office evaluated the level of provocation as “expected,” meaning it was a “usual response” to the ongoing annual Korea-US joint military drill rather than a strategic move to escalate tension.
It interpreted the low-intensity provocation as a signal of the possibility of dialogue.
“This level of provocation shows that dialogue is likely to take place after the exercise,” a Cheong Wa Dae official said. “President Moon Jae-in thinks we should watch for the possibility of dialogue, which may come if the North refrains from provocations during or after the drill.”
Estimating the latest provocation as low-strength and looking at it as a signal of dialogue possibility rather than a threat to the South is a naive and wishful assessment of the situation
Though the Defense Ministry now views projectiles as short-range missiles, the threat of rockets should not be dismissed.
Some experts have said the task of building up the ability to counter the North’s long-range artillery and multiple rocket launchers is more urgent than deploying the US’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system.
The North regards rockets as one of its three strategic weapons, alongside nuclear arms and missiles.
Rockets differ from ballistic missiles in that a large number of them can be launched simultaneously and rather easily. They fly at low altitude, so it is nearly impossible to intercept them. Their range is threatening, and if equipped with satellite navigation technology, their strike precision will increase considerably.
If it is true by any chance that the North fired new rockets with the maximum range of 250 kilometers, it would pose a big problem.
The distance from the Military Demarcation Line to Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province, where THAAD is installed, is 240 km.
If the North fields improved rockets near the line, it will be able to strike the anti-missile system. And the recent provocation could be seen as a warning against the deployment of the missile shield. If it had tested such rockets on Saturday, the North will likely fire them below the altitude where Patriot or THAAD missile defense systems could intercept them.
The latest provocation awakens the allies to the perils of short-range projectiles, rockets or missiles, which could make the antimissile shield useless.
“If the UFG (Ulchi Freedom Guardian) joint military drill was not going on, we wouldn’t have called a standing committee of the National Security Council,” a senior Cheong Wa Dae official said Saturday. “What we mind is a long-range missile. As long as the projectiles were short-range, whether the North fired rockets or ballistic missiles is not so important.”
Cheong Wa Dae did not take the latest North’s provocation seriously.
It is questionable if Cheong Wa Dae had certain reasons to interpret the provocation restrictively and dismiss the projectiles as the “usual response” to a Korea-US military exercise. The Moon administration did not issue even a warning over the latest rocket launch.
When it comes to the North’s provocations, Cheong Wa Dae should not discern high-strength from low-strength ones, but present substantial measures to counter military threats.
It must not underestimate any North Korean provocation. Expectations that dialogue can push back its weapons in the current situation is wishful thinking.