A South Korean woman at a railway station Seoul is more interested in her phone than television news showing footage of North Korea's missile launch on August 6, 2019. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je

North Korea fired two more short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan on Tuesday morning – sparking a collective yawn from policymakers, market participants and reporters across the region.

Tuesday morning’s launches were the latest in a series of test-firings over the last two weeks. North Korea fired two missiles across its territory and into the ocean, as Pyongyang – mired in a swamp of biting economic sanctions and non-progress in its attempts to upgrade relations with Washington – signaled apparent aggravation at summer military drills in South Korea.

But with the latest barrage of short-range missiles provoking no significant reaction from key capitals – Seoul, Tokyo or Washington – experts warn that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may continue risky attempts to grab attention.

However, the apparent lack of high-level reaction from regional leaders may conceal widening fissures within the US-centric security structure in Northeast Asia.

Is it not clear if, or how far, an emerging Beijing-Moscow axis – possibly with Pyongyang as a third partner – are coordinating actions across the region at a time when Washington’s key partners Seoul and Tokyo are engaged in an intensely bitter trade war that has no de-escalation in sight.

Missile-test fatigue

The two missiles were fired at 5:24am and 5:36am from North Korea’s South Hwanghae Province, Yonhap news agency reported. Both flew about 450 kilometers across the peninsula before plunging into the Sea of Japan.

As usual, Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff dutifully issued a statement with some details: The missiles’ ceiling was approximately 37 km and their top speed was about Mach 6.9. Meanwhile, “senior US officials” were reportedly “monitoring” the situation, Yonhap noted.

Over the last two weeks, North Korea has launched what are believed to be four short-range ballistic missiles, plus several projectiles from a tactical multiple-launch rocket system, or MLRS.

Yet US President Donald Trump has repeatedly downplayed Kim’s short-range tests, citing Pyongyang’s adherence to a self-imposed moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests that Kim put in place after his last intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and atomic tests in 2017.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also dismissed them, while South Korean President Moon Jae-in stays mum.

Summer joint military drills held in South Korea look to be behind Kim’s ongoing barrage.

“Kim wants to basically remind everyone that he is not going to sit idle when Americans and South Koreas are doing their military exercises,” Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University, told Asia Times. “He also wants to exert pressure on South Korea while minimizing the threat to the US. He does not want to excessively annoy them as he needs some cooperation on sanctions and still wants to engage in negotiations.”

Pyongyang’s belligerence deals yet another blow to the foreign policy of embattled South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has made North Korean relations the centerpiece of his presidency.

Despite his efforts, when it comes to kick-starting now non-existent economic relations across the DMZ, he faces insurmountable barriers, due to the US’ refusal to waive or lift sanctions. With Washington being Seoul’s only real ally, Moon has no choice but to follow the US line.

Even so, in what now looks like ill-timed and badly-advised comments, Moon on Monday publicly talked up the potential of a “peace economy” – economic interaction between the two Koreas – to counter potential damage from a spiraling dispute with Japan that has leapt from the diplomatic sphere to the economic, and that threatens to derail South Korea’s already sputtering macro growth.

“The advantage Japan’s economy has over us is the size of its [overall] economy and domestic market,” Moon said on Monday at a meeting at the presidential Blue House. “If the South and North could create a peace economy through economic cooperation, we can catch up with Japan’s superiority in one burst.”

 Kim’s next option?

Facing a general lack of regional reaction to his missile tests, a question now hangs over whether a frustrated Kim will unleash a bigger provocation. But most experts believe his current actions are enough to send appropriate signals to external capitals.

“I don’t think he will break the moratorium on nuclear tests or [intercontinental ballistic missile] tests as he doesn’t want to annoy the Americans,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “It is not a big problem if the attention is not high – they just want to send a signal to show they are unhappy, and that signal had been registered.”

But others are concerned that Pyongyang, seeing little benefit accruing from its current actions, may lash out further towards Seoul and Tokyo.

“In terms of Kim Jong Un not wanting to provoke America, he does not want to ruin the party or have a catastrophe – he wants to make the US come to the negotiating table – so for that purpose, North Korea is trying to pressure South Korea, which is a hostage of North Korea whenever they try to negotiate with Washington,” Choi Jin-wook, a North Korea watcher at Hankook University of Foreign Studies, told Asia Times.

Early analyses of recent short-range missile tests suggest the weapons are a new addition to North Korea’s arsenal, Choi noted. Their specific altitudes, flight paths and target trajectories may outfox current anti-missile defenses in South Korea and Japan.

While Abe may dismiss the tests in public, they do, in fact, pressure Japan – and indirectly, the US.

“Trump is not a good ‘alliance man,’ but still, there is a Japanese lobby in the US Congress,” Choi said. “I think it is less influential than before, but is influential on US policymakers – though not Trump himself.”

Choi warned of further provocations – and noted that Kim, while fully in control of his state and army – may also need to placate his own hawks. “Kim is trying to use policy leverage to please hardliners,” Choi said.

The wider chessboard

North Korea’s missile launches are coming at a time when China and Russia are upgrading cooperation in a hugely strategic region. Not only is Northeast Asia the world’s largest zone of economic activity alongside the EU and North America, it is where regional powers China, Russia and North Korea square off against Japan, South Korea and the US.

Kim has met with both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin this year. China and Russia have been upgrading their regional military cooperation since last year’s massive “Vostok” exercises, conducted by Russian forces in the Russian Far East, with a contingent of Chinese troops participating.

In what has since been confirmed as a joint exercise, Chinese and Russian air force assets last month intruded into not only South Korea’s Air Defense Identification Zone, but its sovereign air space.

In what appeared to be a thoughtfully planned move, a Russian reconnaissance plane overflew the islets of Dokdo, which are administered and garrisoned by South Korea, but also claimed by Japan, which calls them Takeshima, in a highly emotive dispute.

The intrusion took place at a time when bilateral relations between the two Northeast Asian democracies and US allies are at their lowest ebb since diplomatic relations were established in 1965. Both capitals predictably traded barbs after the Russian overflight incident.

This pattern of regional anti-US military cooperation is only just starting to emerge.

“They are not formal allies, but there is going to be a great deal of military cooperation” between Beijing and Moscow in the region, Lankov said, citing tensions between both Washington and Beijing and also Washington and Moscow.

On the same day as Pyongyang’s missile launches, Beijing warned the US not to place missiles in the region. “China will not stand idly by and will be forced to take counter-measures should the US deploy intermediate-range ground-based missiles in this part of the world,” said Fu Cong, the director of arms control at the Chinese foreign ministry, according to AFP.

This raises the question of whether the Beijing-Moscow bilateral cooperation against the US and its regional allies is expanding to a trilateral triangle that includes North Korea.

That looks less likely, according to Lankov.

“We are seeing cooperation, but only to a small extent, as North Korea is seen as being unreliable, unpredictable and unruly by both China and Russia,” Lankov said. “There will be occasional opportunistic cooperation on an ad hoc basis with North Korea, but both sides do not trust North Korea, and North Korea trusts nobody.”

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