Pyongyang’s missiles test cooperation among Japan, U.S., South Korea

It can be said that North Korea has started trying to rattle the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden. Japan, the United States and South Korea must work together to prepare for an escalation of military provocations.

North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, and they fell outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions ban North Korea from firing ballistic missiles. It is only natural that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga condemned the latest launch, saying it is “a threat to the peace and security of our country and the region.”

It was the first time for North Korea to have launched ballistic missiles in a year. It also has been confirmed that Pyongyang launched short-range missiles on Sunday. This is part of tactics commonly used by North Korea to escalate provocations in stages to obtain concessions such as the easing of sanctions in return for holding talks with the United States.

North Korea is opposed to the U.S. move to strengthen its alliance with Japan and South Korea and has not accepted offers to engage with the Biden administration. The latest missile launch may be aimed at gauging the U.S. response and starting a dialogue in a way that is advantageous to North Korea.

The Biden administration has been reviewing U.S. policy toward North Korea based on a combination of “pressure and dialogue.” According to the administration, the review will be completed in the next few weeks.

The main focus of the pressure is through sanctions, but China, North Korea’s largest trading partner, has taken limited action. There have been repeated sanctions violations, including coal smuggling. North Korea probably thinks China will not respond to U.S. measures to increase pressure, as the confrontation between Washington and Beijing has been intensifying.

If the situation is left unaddressed, North Korea might escalate tensions by launching medium- to long-range ballistic missiles or even conducting a nuclear test. There is no doubt that a destabilization of the situation would be highly detrimental to China as well. Measures must be strengthened to close the loopholes in the sanctions.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Japan and South Korea earlier this month, agreeing to deepen the U.S. alliance with the two countries. However, the true value of the security cooperation between Japan, the United States, and South Korea will be tested in the future.

There are many unknowns about the type and performance of the missiles used in the latest launch. The three countries should reexamine whether they have a sufficient system in place for sharing information and conducting joint analysis.

It remains a concern that South Korean President Moon Jae-in holds a conciliatory stance toward the North. Joint South Korea-U.S. drills conducted earlier this month were limited to tabletop exercises, not field maneuvers, apparently at the behest of the Moon administration. Can emergencies be responded to swiftly under such circumstances?

Japan, the United States and South Korea will soon have high-level talks in Washington. It is important to develop a strategy to draw North Korea into dialogue and make it take steps toward denuclearization.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on March 26, 2021.