Dueling missile launches on the Korean Peninsula

(AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

I’m old enough to remember a stretch of a couple of years when the Korean Peninsula was actually pretty quiet, with no ballistic missile tests being conducted and the leaders of both Korean nations actually talking to each other. Of course, that was way back in… 2018 and 2019. It would appear that those days are fully behind us now. Not only did Kim Jong-un fire off another missile test this week, but South Korea quickly followed suit and lit up one of their own. And all of this military action is taking place at the same time that their neighbors in China are rattling their swords at levels not seen in many years. Is this a warning sign of some major impending military activity, or is it all for show? We may be getting a few more hints in the near future. (Associated Press)

North and South Korea tested ballistic missiles hours apart Wednesday in a display of military might that is sure to exacerbate tensions between the rivals at a time when talks aimed at stripping the North of its nuclear program are stalled.

The South Korean and Japanese militaries said North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles that flew 800 kilometers (500 miles) before landing in the sea inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone — a worrying development even though they did not reach Japan’s territorial waters. The last time a North Korean missile landed inside that zone was October 2019.

The launches came two days after the North said it fired a newly developed cruise missile, its first weapons test in six months.

North Korean state media described the cruise missile as a “strategic weapon of great significance.” The implication there is clearly that they believe they can arm them with nuclear warheads. The fact that they’re firing them into Japan’s economic sphere of coastal waters is also provocative. The range on those cruise missiles still isn’t considered great enough to reach the continental United States, but everyone else in the immediate reason could be in danger from them.

China’s Foreign Minister was in Seoul while all of this was going on, meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. They were engaging in talks designed to cool tensions between the Koreas and potentially get Kim back to the bargaining table. But as much as China considers North Korea an ally and a needed buffer between them and the U.S.-aligned South, Kim doesn’t seem to be in the mood to take orders from Beijing. Or at least not yet.

If Sino-American relations weren’t such a dumpster fire right now (and if the Chinese Communist Party wasn’t being such a band of aggressive jerks), we might actually be able to use their leverage to get some cooperation out of Kim Jong-un. His country is facing famine conditions at the moment, on top of losing people to COVID. Currently, North Korea would collapse were it not for foreign food aid, much of which comes from China.

If there’s anyone who could apply the right sort of pressure to get Kim to at least partially dismantle his tactical weapons program and dial back his missile development, it would be Xi Jinping. Unfortunately, he appears to be more interested in his own military expansion plans into Afghanistan and elsewhere right now. That makes him unlikely to risk ticking off the madman living just over China’s southeastern border.

In earlier times, it would have been the role of the United States to step in and try to calm the waters and bring everyone to the table. But thus far, North Korea has thumbed its nose at Joe Biden’s offers to negotiate. We shouldn’t be giving in to Kim’s demands for major sanction relief before he puts anything on the table, but this lack of progress seems to show that the Biden administration really doesn’t have a plan for how to deal with the tiny tyrant of North Korea and his nuclear toys.