SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - In downplaying the security threats posed by North Korea's weapons of mass destruction programme, President Moon Jae-in's administration is going too far in what critics see as an illusory pursuit of inter-Korean reconciliation.
The North last Thursday (Mar 25) test-fired two short-range ballistic missiles, after launching two cruise missiles four days earlier.
South Korea's military was slow and passive in responding to the North's latest provocative acts. Initially it described the missiles as "unidentified projectiles", while the Japanese government and foreign news media were quick to confirm they were ballistic missiles.
Even after referring to them as ballistic missiles, South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff still avoided commenting on whether their launch violated United Nations Security Council resolutions banning the recalcitrant regime from testing any type of ballistic missile.
South Korea's military had also kept silent on the North's cruise missile launch, until foreign news media reported on it last Wednesday.
Seoul's reluctance to react to Pyongyang's latest provocations became more inexcusable last Friday, when the North's state-run news agency confirmed that it had test-fired new tactical guided missiles that could be tipped with heavier warheads.
Experts say they believe the North test-fired an advanced version of its KN-23 missile, modelled after Russia's Iskander missile.
Rather than following a general parabolic trajectory, the missile takes a more complicated path, doing a pull-up manoeuvre during the course of its flight. With a flight range of up to 600km, it is designed mainly to strike targets in South Korea.
What is particularly worrisome is that the solid-fuelled missile, which can be prepared for launch in 10-15 minutes, may be tipped with tactical nuclear arms whose development North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered early this year.
The lukewarm response of the South Korean military to the first ballistic missile launch by the North in about a year seems to be part of the Moon administration's blind pursuit of its peace agenda for the peninsula.
With his five-year tenure set to end in May next year, Mr Moon appears to be hoping to hold yet another meeting with Mr Kim to reaffirm their 2018 declarations on inter-Korean reconciliation and set them on the path towards implementation.
Ties between the two Koreas remain stalled since a 2019 summit in Hanoi between Mr Kim and then United States President Donald Trump ended without a deal on the North's denuclearisation.
The Moon administration has tried in vain to revive its peace agenda by taking a string of actions to pander to Pyongyang, including scaling down South Korea's joint military drills with the US and introducing legislation to punish North Korean defectors and their supporters in the South for flying anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border into the North.
In a speech last Friday, Mr Moon refrained from issuing any warning to the North regarding its latest ballistic missile launch.
He just said "actions causing difficulty for the mood for dialogue are undesirable", stressing that now is the time for the two Koreas and the US to try to pick up their talks.
By contrast, US President Joe Biden last Thursday warned of "responses" if North Korea were to escalate tensions. In his first news conference since taking office on Jan 20, Mr Biden made it clear that the North's ballistic missile test was in violation of at least one UN Security Council resolution.
He said diplomacy was still possible despite Pyongyang's latest provocation, but "has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearisation".
Mr Biden's firm reaction was certainly disappointing, though not dismaying, for the North, which appeared to have timed its first serious provocation in a year shortly before Mr Biden's maiden press conference as president.
In response to Mr Biden's warning, vice-chairman of the central committee of the North's ruling Workers' Party Ri Pyong Chol said in a statement that the US could face "something that is not good" if such "thoughtless remarks" continued.
There is a chance that Pyongyang will initiate more serious provocations, such as test-firing a new submarine-launched ballistic missile or intercontinental ballistic missile as early as next month, after the outcome of the Biden administration's review of policy approaches to the North is unveiled.
US national security adviser Jake Sullivan will meet his South Korean and Japanese counterparts in Washington later this week to put the finishing touches on the review.
The Moon administration would be well advised to prevent its single-eyed adherence to a peace agenda from hampering work to consolidate a joint stance with the US and Japan against ever-evolving military threats from the North.
The Korea Herald is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media organisations.