People watch a television broadcast showing footage of a North Korean missile test at a railway station in Seoul on September 28, 2021. Chun Su-jun hopes to pain a more nuanced picture of what is often seen as a rogue regime and garrison state. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

SEOUL – Only days after Kim Jong Un’s sister reversed her long-held stance and suggested talks with South Korea, North Korea test-fired what appeared to be a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan.

The missile was fired eastward from Mupyong-ri, in Jagang Province in north-central North Korea, at about 6:40am, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

Japanese authorities identified it as a short-range ballistic missile and said it had splashed in waters outside its exclusive economic zone. South Korea’s military is still analyzing the situation, a spokesman from the Ministry of National Defense told Asia Times.

While North Korea is permitted cruise missiles, UN resolutions ban its possession or testing of ballistic missiles, a stance Pyongyang repeatedly defies. One hour after Tuesday’s launch, the state’s ambassador to the United Nations told the General Assembly in New York “nobody can deny the right to self-defense” of North Korea.

South Korea, which in May saw the lifting of a long-held US ceiling on its own missile development programs, has in recent months released details of long-range missile programs of its own, and tested a domestic submarine-launched ballistic missile. This indicates a brewing missile arms race between the two states.

Tuesday’s launch is the latest in a recent series of missile tests from the North this month.

On September 11-12, the North test-fired long-range cruise missiles, which it claimed were “strategic” – suggesting the projectiles could be armed with nuclear warheads. On September 15, it test-fired a short-range ballistic missile fired from a train, an unusual launch platform.

It is likely that the moves are aimed at generating discussions in Washington as well as Seoul.

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on February 9, 2018. Photo: AFP / Patrick Semansky

Mixed messaging

According to Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general, North Korea always has domestic military and international political reasons for its missile tests.

Confusingly, the most recent missile test came only three days after Kim Yo Jong, the sister of national leader Kim Jong Un, held out the possibility of talks with South Korea.

After South Korean President Moon Jae-in called, in a widely-reported speech before the UN General Assembly last week, for a peace treaty to bring a formal end to the Korean War, Kim Yo Jong unexpectedly said on Friday that the idea was “admirable” and that it could be possible to sit down “face to face and declare the significant termination of the war.”

That statement sent a frisson of excitement through South Korea as it signaled, perhaps, a return to Korea-Korea talks, the reversal of antagonistic Northern policies and a softening of the influential Kim’s tough stance.

However, as one of her multiple preconditions, Kim said the South should drop its “hostile policies” and cease “faulting our just exercise of the right to self-defense.”

That language was mirrored in the North’s post-launch comments at the United Nations. This could explain Seoul’s reluctance to identify Tuesday’s projectile as a ballistic missile.

Kim is widely believed to be a key player in Pyongyang’s inter-Korean relations team, but her reported statements in state media since 2019 have been almost entirely hawkish, while her brother has taken a step back.

Analysts have suggested that the apparently differing attitudes of the brother and sister offer the North a “good cop, bad cop” dynamic in its messaging and diplomatic outreach, and allows the elder brother to project a more statesmanlike image.

But despite Kim Yo Jong’s Friday statement, South Korea’s defense ministry said on Tuesday that North Korea was not responding to South Korea’s calls on cross-border military hotlines.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un with US President Donald Trump at the Military Demarcation Line that divides North and South Korea on June 30, 2019. Photo: AFP

Pyongyang probes for cracks

North Korea-US relations have been largely dormant since the failure of a summit between then-US president Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in Vietnam in February 2019. Inter-Korean relations have, relatedly, been at a virtual standstill.

The Moon administration has made inter-Korean relations a centerpiece of its policies, but has been deeply frustrated. It is politically unable to act independently of its key ally, the United States, which is far less focused on engagement.

With a presidential election due next March, and the incumbent government leaving office in May, Moon may well be looking to his legacy.

Given this, the time may be ripe for North Korea to find what policy cracks it can widen between Seoul and Washington.

“I think North Korea is essentially testing whether South Korea wants to carry out a dialog while [Pyongyang] carries out provocations,” Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at think tank the Asan Institute told Asia Times. “North Korean policy is to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington.”

While the Joe Biden administration has not placed as much priority on North Korean diplomacy as did the Trump administration, it has made clear its willingness to sit down and engage.

So why is North Korea raising its head above the parapet and testing missiles?

Possibly because Washington has not suggested the top-level meetings that characterized the Trump years – and also continues to focus the agenda on denuclearization.

This would explain the restrained approach North Korea is taking. It is pinpricking the US rather than unleashing a major provocation, such as an intercontinental ballistic missile or a nuclear test, which could push Washington into confrontation mode.

“This is North Korea saying, ‘We can do something more provocative next, so come up with an offer,’” Go said. “The US is offering dialogue but the dialogue is not guaranteed it to go in the direction the NKs want it to go, so they are shaping the agenda.”