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[Editorial] Keep up vigilance

Seoul neither denounces NK projectile provocation nor expresses regret

The presidential office said Sunday its National Security Office chief held an emergency meeting shortly after North Korea fired two short-range projectiles off its east coast early in the morning.

Cheong Wa Dae disclosed the meeting to debunk criticism that it had not responded to the emergency situation. It neither condemned the North’s provocation, nor expressed regret. It only said through a spokesperson that “we are watching the situation.”

North Korea’s short-range missiles threaten South Korea most. If it fires them southward, they can reach the US military base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province.

It is the government’s duty to protect the lives and properties of citizens. It is a matter of course to denounce a provocation that threatens its people, or at least to express regret.

Watching the situation is almost meaningless, as Cheong Wa Dae effectively made no response. Sometimes indifference may work as a strategic choice, but considering the North’s frequent provocations of late, it appears too easy-going.

North Korea has launched similar projectiles on four occasions this month alone. It appears to be acting on a schedule to improve the performance of its launch vehicles and short-range missiles, as it repeats the process of preparation, launch and evaluation.

Sunday’s two projectiles were reportedly fired within an interval of 20 seconds. They reached a maximum altitude of 30 kilometers and flew a distance of 230 kilometers. If the interval is shortened and the maximum altitude is lowered, it will become more difficult for the combined South Korea and US forces to intercept them.

Even as the North keeps attempting to upgrade its weapons, the South is frustratingly responding in the same way. The military authorities said Sunday that “the North’s military action is inappropriate in a situation where the world is fighting the coronavirus,” and urged the North to stop provocations. This sounds like a mere formality.

The statement is almost identical to the response after the March 21 short-range missile launches. At that time, Cheong Wa Dae said the same thing: “We are watching the situation.” And it did not even mention whether it had held an emergency meeting.

The South links the North’s provocations to an international coronavirus situation, but Pyongyang seems to be relentless in such a situation.

There are speculations the North may have carried out provocations to rally residents discontented with the dire economic conditions -- Pyongyang sealed the border with China for fear of transmission of the novel coronavirus. Nevertheless, an easy-going response is hardly warranted.

It is important to grasp the intention of provocation, but what is more important is to deter provocations and secure defense capabilities. Besides, the government should let the people know what it is doing in that direction. Repeating a tenuous response as a formality is pointless. It must not end up only announcing data such as the flight time, flight distance and number of missiles fired.

North Korea focused on strategic weapons targeting the US, such as mid- and long-range ballistic missiles, until 2017. Afterward it shifted focus to tactical weapons targeting South Korea, such as short-range missiles. Last year, it tested short-range projectiles on 12 occasions, and this year it began to integrate them into its existing weapons system for deployment.

The North disclosed in January that it has reshuffled the command of its People’s Army. Overhauling the military command and improving the performance of weapons are signs the North is trying to strengthen its capability to wage war. The government must brace thoroughly for the escalating threat.

There is little possibility of Pyongyang stopping its weapon development. It is worrisome that South Koreans appear to be growing insensitive to its provocations. If we keep responding easily, saying “they are doing it again, it’s no big deal,” the dike of security will collapse eventually.

Cheong Wa Dae and the government must keep up vigilance against the North’s military moves, big or small.
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