A woman at a railway station in Seoul walks past a television showing a North Korean missile launch on July 31, 2019. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je

In July and early August, North Korea launched short-range missiles that were seen as a response to joint US/South Korea military exercises. The launches involved short-range ballistic missiles flying at lower altitudes; such missiles are more difficult to track, and represent a new headache for the US and South Korea.

South Korea’s National Security Council has expressed concern over how such missile activity could have a negative impact on efforts to build peace on the Korean Peninsula. Think-tanks and research institutes that specialize in North Korea have speculated that the North may actually have higher-grade, higher-capacity weapons than the international community had previously thought.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump does his best to put a positive spin on his relationship with Kim Jong Un, with his reactions suggesting that the US can somehow tolerate short-range missile tests.

The missile launches happened only weeks after Kim and Trump met at the DMZ truce village of Panmunjom on June 30, and one or more of the short-range missiles reportedly flew over the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. Why would Kim be taking such chances? What message is he trying to get across to the international community?

In recent months, the world’s media has speculated that missile activities by the North undermine the legitimacy of a third summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. However, some experts are of the opinion that the latest launches could actually signal that North Korea is establishing an internal security system to prepare itself for denuclearization.

Trump recently dismissed the launches as political acts on the part of Kim, and tried to divert media attention to a three-page letter he received from the North Korean leader. In it, Trump reported that Kim had requested a further meeting and for negotiations to commence as soon as the US/South Korea joint military exercise was completed. According to Trump, Kim also expressed a “small” apology for the latest missile activity. Commentators and analysts are of the view that any such apology might be interpreted as suggesting an internal North Korean dispute that resulted in Kim being forced to issue the apology.

Even though North Korea is seen as a rogue state by the international community, at home Kim must act as a politician to garner and maintain support from his allies. South Korean security experts feel that the North Korean military might be resisting what it sees as Kim Jong-un potentially abandoning its nuclear weapons to curry favor with the US. If Kim is under pressure from his military, it may be that he ordered the short-range missile launches to solidify his power at home.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boasts that Washington is imposing the strongest economic sanctions against North Korea in US history, and data released by the United Nations suggests that North Korean living standards are indeed deteriorating as a direct result of US sanctions.

According to CNN, at the Hanoi summit in February, Kim told Trump that he could dismantle North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility. However, according to political experts, Trump left the talks because of a media storm back home surrounding his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. Waters were further muddied by Korean news analysts stating that the reason Kim substituted his interpreter who was translating for him at the Hanoi summit was that she did not properly translate his statements regarding dismantling nuclear sites.

North Korea’s vocal criticism of US/South Korean military exercises has been aimed, not at the White House in Washington, but at Seoul’s Blue House, the official residence of the South Korean president. North Korea is trying to reduce the influence of the Blue House in preparations for another summit with the US. However, the Blue House remains silent, a tactic that has generated criticism from conservative South Korean media outlets over its lack of responses to missile launches and to aggressive statements from Pyongyang.

US/South Korean tactics in responding to North Korean issues are working. Trump deliberately refrains from criticizing North Korea, and South Korea president Moon Jae-in makes every effort to maintain an open dialogue with Kim. Thanks to these tactics, North Korea no longer appears to be developing nuclear weapons and has stopped launching long-range missiles.

Notable is the complete absence of military action from the North to counter joint military exercises in the South. Although Seoul must remain ever-watchful for North Korean missile activities, it is important for the world’s media to understand that current North Korean tactics are very different from ten years ago, when it used missile launches as threats to South Korea and the US. Failure by the media to understand this could foster future security conflicts.

The international community, along with its media, has difficulty viewing North Korea’s missile launches as the normal security training of an ordinary nation. However, so long as the North Korean leader wants to keep talking with the US president, recent missile exercises should not be allowed to cloud the possibility of future dialogue and the potential for achieving denuclearization in North Korea.

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