North Korea’s October rocket launches: international reactions

Following on from our previous article on the escalation of tensions in October 2022, we will look at the international reaction to North Korea’s rocket launches.

The first thing that should be noted is that the launches did not cause any particular concern in either Russia or China. There was no outbreak of heated rhetoric from politicians or media hysteria. This is understandable – Russia’s position has always been that North Korea’s rocket launches are not more headline newsworthy that those by other countries simply because they are North Korean. For example, similar rocket launches by South Korea frequently fail to make the headlines, even though they also may have the effect of raising tensions.

 As for the reaction by the “collective West”, which in the present context includes Japan and South Korea, it has been rather predictable. Every political force has its own standard phrases – actions and statements that can be described as “habitual”: for example following such launches the USA and South Korea inevitably express their concern about the “North Korean threat”, insist that the launch (if it is anything more than a short-range missile) violates UN Security Council resolutions, and call for a response.

Let us begin by looking at the official responses from US officials. US President Joe Biden condemned the launches in no uncertain terms during his telephone call with the Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who echoed his criticism. Joe Biden also sent a letter to the South Korean President, setting out the general goals of both countries.

Jake Sullivan, United States National Security Advisor to President Joe Biden declared, “The United States strongly condemns the DPRK’s dangerous and reckless decision to launch a long-range ballistic missile over Japan.”

On October 5 US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called on North Korea to enter into dialogue, adding that its provocations will only lead to further condemnation and increase its isolation.

On October 6 Vedant Patel, Assistant Press Secretary for the US Department of State declared that the USA would continue to closely monitor North Korea and take additional action if necessary. The United States has a range of ways to hold North Korea accountable for its provocative actions, he added. However, when he was asked whether the US would take any specific actions to punish North Korea, he avoided giving a direct answer.

 Brigadier General Pat Ryder, representing the US Department of Defense, dismissed North Korea’s claims that its rocket launches were a response to provocations.

The US Indo-Pacific Command called on North Korea to refrain from any further “illegal and destabilizing” actions.

Yoon Suk-yeol, the South Korean President, also responded with a number of uncompromising statements. Back on October 1, Armed Forces Day, he made an official speech in which he described the North Korean nuclear threat as a direct challenge to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. He added that South Korea was determined to step up its cooperation with the USA and step up the joint exercises between the two countries to counter the potential threat from the DPRK.

On October 4 Yoon Suk-yeol warned that North Korea’s provocation was a clear infringement of the universal principles and rules of the UN, and called for a firm response and for the taking of appropriate measures in partnership with the USA and the international community. He also met with Admiral John Aquilino, commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, and requested his command to work closely with South Korea in order to help it with the effective implementation of strengthened and extended deterrence measures.

And finally on October 6 Yoon Suk-yeol and the Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida had a 25-minute telephone conversation during which they both absolutely condemned North Korea’s rocket launches as “acts of grave provocation threatening the peace and safety of not just the Korean Peninsula but also Northeast Asia and the international community.” They also “agreed that South Korea and Japan should work together to issue a stern response to North Korea, and both acknowledged the necessity of sending North Korea a clear message that its provocations must have consequences.

 In fact, in their first one-to-one talks, which took place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, Yoon Suk-yeol and Fumio Kishida also expressed their concerns about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, including the possibility of a seventh round of nuclear tests and its recently adopted new nuclear doctrine.

Significantly, it was Tokyo that initiated this conversation between the two heads of state.

The former Korean President, Moon Jae-in, on the other hand, called for peace. Insisting that the two Koreas should work to renew mutual relations based on “national interests and peace” Moon Jae-in called on Pyongyang to stop his rocket “provocations” and fulfil his promises to uphold the moratorium on testing.

Moon Jae-in’s speech was timed to mark the 15th anniversary of the North–South Summit Declaration, made on October 4, 2007, in which the then President of South Korea, Roh Moo-hyun, and the then leader of North Korea Kim Jong-il both promised to work together to strengthen confidence and to focus on economic cooperation between the two countries. The Declaration followed the 2007 summit between the two leaders in Pyongyang, but was never implemented because of the subsequent tensions.

Official statements at a lower level have been in a similar vein. On October 4 South Korea’s Office of National Security (ONS), which assists the President, held an emergency meeting presided over by National Security Advisor Kim Sung-han.  The ONS decisively condemned the launches, describing them as a flagrant breach of UN Security Council resolutions and a serious provocation that threatened peace on the Korean peninsula, in South-East Asia and further afield.

It also determined that North Korea’s ongoing provocations could not be ignored, and resolved to look for ways to deter North Korea in the future, including by means of sanctions imposed in partnership with the US and the international community.

On October 6 Kim Sung-han presided over another meeting of the ONS, during which it warned that North Korea’s provocations would be met with an more decisive response, a warning that was confirmed by the redeployment of a naval fleet headed by the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan.

The launches have also had the effect of increasing the level of communication between national defense departments.  On October 4 Kim Hong-kyun, South Korea’s Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs discussed Pyongyang’s rocket launches in a telephone conversation with Sung Kim, US Special Representative for the North Korea and Takehiro Funakoshi, Director General for Asian and Oceanian Affairs at the Japanese Foreign Ministry. The parties to the conversation agreed that the latest launch represented a clear breach of UN Security Council resolutions and emphasized that “this time the rocket passed over Japanese airspace, and accordingly such actions represent a threat not only for the Korean peninsula but for the entire global community”.

 Also on October 4 Wendy Sherman, US Deputy Secretary of State, held a telephone conversation with Cho Hyun-dong, South Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister and Takeo Mori, Japan’s Vice Foreign Minister. The participants agreed that such actions represented a threat to security in the region and stressed that the launch was a violation of a number of UN Security Council resolutions, and then reiterated the importance of supporting trilateral cooperation to oppose such launches by North Korea.

 To conclude, we will look at some of the reactions from experts and the media. The conservative Korea Herald insists on the need to leave the door open for dialogue with North Korea, but that “South Korea and the US must focus on preparing more substantial and effective responses”, especially in view of the fact that the ability of the UN Security Council to impose new sanctions has “effectively broken down due to China and Russia wielding their veto power” and that “condemnation or appeal to the international community represents little to North Korea”. In its editorial, the newspaper calls for stronger security cooperation with Japan. It also recommends that “the three countries …resume their combined anti-submarine warfare drill in five years. They need to conduct combined missile interception exercises as well.”.

In its October 6 editorial with the headline “Stern action needed to keep North Korea in check”, the Korea Times argues that “the recent launch is an apparent prelude to further provocations by Pyongyang, such as the test-firing of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and another nuclear test”.  The editorial concludes that “Seoul and Washington should take more proactive steps to prevent the tense security situation on the peninsula from aggravating. On the other hand, they should double down on inducing the recalcitrant North to hold talks.”

According to an editorial in the conservative Korea JoongAng Daily, “Buoyed by its nuclear weapons, North Korea is not afraid of the South Korea-US joint drills, and, moreover, “Kim [Jong-un] could be tempted to use nukes if Russian President Vladimir Putin uses them in the Ukraine war”.».

Harry Kazianis, the president of the think tank Rogue States Project, also believes that North Korea is currently able to test weapons and “pay no penalty” for its “provocations”. In his opinion,“the war in Ukraine means that North Korea will be able to test all sorts of weapons ― hypersonic missiles, submarine-launched systems, nuclear weapons and of course ICBMs …as Washington is distracted while Russia and China are unwilling to help.

According to Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow at the Washington-based think tank Heritage Foundation, “missile launches can serve several concurrent objectives — development of new weapons systems, routine military training, exercising the war plan Kim implemented after assuming power a decade ago, a message of strength and resolve to the North Korean populace, and sending a signal to Washington and Seoul”.

Both experts believe that Pyonyang “may be inching toward conducting its 7th nuclear test, an ICBM overflight of Japan, or demonstrating a multiple-warhead ICBM test.” Harry Kazianis believes “North Korea will absolutely test a nuclear weapon by mid-December…They know that Washington has no real ability to punish them with the war in Ukraine raging and that being the focus for the Biden Administration”.   Many specialists have noted that the USA is currently focused on the situation in Ukraine, and as a result Pyongyang is largely free to complete its development of new weaponry. And given the current geopolitical situation in the world, it is almost certain that Russia and China would block any attempt by the international community to impose stricter sanctions on North Korea.

 Commentators have emphasized that North Korea’s actions are leading to a new escalation in the arms race. As Harry Kazianis points out, “The Kim Jong-un regime will certainly test as much as they can during this unique time period, driving Washington and its allies to increase their own military capabilities. That means not only are we in for an arms race in Northeast Asia, but the stage is set for Japan and South Korea to actively consider developing and deploying their own nuclear weapons.”

Bruce Bennett, a senior international defense analyst at the RAND Corporation also notes that the threat posed by North Korea is the main driver for South Korea’s development of new rocket and other technology. “South Korea is seeking a larger missile that can deliver a very large conventional warhead to North Korea, or a more normal warhead out to a very long range.” Professor Terence Roehrig of the US Naval War College, added: “I think the United States will welcome the growth in South Korean military capabilities. It bolsters deterrence and takes some of the weight off the U.S. side of the alliance”, he added. If the US further develops its military capacities this may cause problems for South Korea and Japan, as Washington would need to find sites to base its rockets.

In summary, the situation is as follows.

  1. The US continues in its verbal attacks on North Korea, but its attempts to make use of the situation to step up its sanctions have failed once again.
  2. US experts are making a great deal of fuss about the possibility of nuclear testing. A number of them have stated outright that North Korea is taking advantage of the Russian special operation in Ukraine to flex its muscles. Reading between the lines, they are trying to label Russia and North Korea as pariah states.
  3. The reaction in South Korea has certainly been more extreme that it was under Moon Jae-in.
  4. The North Korean issue has also turned out to be a convenient opportunity for bringing about a rapprochement between South Korea and Japan. Yoon Suk-yeol and the Japanese Prime Kishida, brought together by the North Korean threat, are finally talking to each other cordially.
  5. And for both of them, as for Joe Biden, the north Korean issue is a way to boost their low ratings.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.


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