News analysis

Hopes of dialogue dashed amid worries of more provocations

There are concerns North will hold more missile tests in run-up to Winter Olympics

North Korea dashed any budding hope of dialogue when it launched what it claims is a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking any part of the United States yesterday.

Pyongyang tried to hail the Hwasong-15 test as a significant moment marking the "completion" of the country's nuclear programme, but analysts said it is far from a major breakthrough as it has yet to demonstrate critical capabilities that will allow the missile to re-enter the earth's atmosphere.

Sogang University's international relations professor Kim Jae Chun said the 75-day gap between yesterday's test and the previous one on Sept 15 could suggest that North Korea had been ironing out technical issues in its ICBM development.

"The wishful thinking that there were no provocations in the past 75 days because North Korea was reassessing the situation from a different angle and leaning towards negotiation is not true," he added.

Kobe University's security expert Tosh Minohara said thoughts of North Korea considering reconciliation are "frankly naive".

"North Korea appears to be keeping a testing schedule," he said. "Each test has to push the envelope a little bit further."

People cheering in Pyongyang yesterday after news that the Hwasong-15 missile had been successfully launched. North Korea tried to hail the test as a
significant moment marking the ''completion'' of the country's nuclear programme, but analysts said it is far from a major breakthrough. PHOTO: AGENCE

A pause in provocations after September raised hopes of bringing Pyongyang back to the negotiating table, with Seoul boosting efforts to play peacemaker.

But, said Dr Minohara, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un only "cares about developing his nuclear arsenal and to this end, he will do whatever is necessary".

Yesterday's missile, launched at 3.17am (2.17am in Singapore) from Pyongsong in South Pyongan province, flew nearly 960km over 53 minutes and reached an altitude of 4,500km before landing in waters within Japan's exclusive economic zone. If fired at a normal trajectory, it could have flown more than 10,000km.

After the test, Mr Kim declared the completion of "state nuclear force", said the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). North Korea will make "every possible effort" to defend global peace and stability as it is a "responsible nuclear power", KCNA added.

Dr Masashi Nishihara, president of the Research Institute for Peace and Security in Tokyo, said it will be "interesting" to watch China's reaction, especially since the test came after Mr Kim snubbed an envoy that Chinese President Xi Jinping had sent to Pyongyang.

In talks yesterday, South Korean President Moon Jae In and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe both underscored the importance of Beijing playing a bigger and more active role in restraining Pyongyang.

Professor Su Hao of China Foreign Affairs University said China is willing to communicate and coordinate with the United States and South Korea to resolve the nuclear issue, but noted that North Korea "clearly has not respected China's wishes, so China definitely will not be happy".

Some experts view the so-called completion of North Korea's nuclear programme as a prelude to a possible freeze in provocations, but others voiced concern of more missile or nuclear tests in the lead-up to the Winter Olympics South Korea is hosting in February.

Citing precedents, Dr Bong Young Shik of Yonsei University's Institute for North Korean Studies said it would not be a surprise if North Korea were to try to undermine the Games. Pyongyang blew up a Korean Air plane months before the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Dr Bong urged the international community to unite in getting North Korea to return to the negotiating table. "It's a foot race (in terms of) whether North Korea will complete its second-strike nuclear capability first, or crack under pressure and... choose survival by abandoning nuclear weapons," he said.

•Additional reporting by Goh Sui Noi in Beijing, Walter Sim in Tokyo

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2017, with the headline 'Hopes of dialogue dashed amid worries of more provocations'. Print Edition | Subscribe