SEOUL - South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida have strongly condemned North Korea’s rampant missile testing and agreed on the need to remind Pyongyang that “reckless provocations come at a cost”.
They also agreed to work together on a “stern response” and cooperate with their mutual security ally, the United States, and the international community to stop Pyongyang, according to Mr Yoon’s office.
The two leaders spoke on the phone hours after Pyongyang lobbed two short-range ballistic missiles into the waters off its eastern coast on Thursday, marking its sixth provocation in the two weeks since South Korea and the US resumed a major joint naval drill.
Hours after the missile test in the morning, a group of 12 North Korean warplanes were seen flying in formation and seemingly conducting firing drills north of the inter-Korean air boundary. This prompted the South to deploy 30 fighter jets.
North Korea’s accelerated pace of missile testing – 24 rounds this year alone, compared with eight last year and four in 2020 – has raised concern about the regime’s growing nuclear capability as nuclear talks that began in 2018 remain in deadlock.
The US accused China and Russia of providing “blanket protection” to North Korea and vetoing efforts by the United Nations Security Council to impose stronger sanctions on the regime.
US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said at a Security Council meeting on Wednesday that the two nations “have enabled Kim Jong Un” and rewarded the North “for their bad actions”.
China’s deputy UN ambassador Geng Shuang, however, urged the Security Council to play a more constructive role instead of relying on strong rhetoric or pressure.
“Discussions and deliberations should contribute to a detente, rather than fuelling escalation,” he said. “They should promote the resumption of dialogue instead of widening differences, and forge unity instead of creating divisions.”
Moscow and Beijing have in recent years pushed for easing of sanctions as an incentive for Pyongyang to return to dialogue.
Nuclear talks between Pyongyang and Washington, brokered by Seoul, broke down in 2019 due to differences over sanctions relief and denuclearisation steps.
Both sides have kept the door to dialogue open, but the North has ramped up missile testing as the South and the US toughen their stance against it. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in September that there will be “absolutely no denuclearisation, and no negotiation and no bargaining chip to trade”.
The regime is widely expected to conduct its seventh nuclear test this year. The provocations on Thursday are viewed as an apparent protest over the recent South Korea-US naval drills.
Pyongyang on Thursday also condemned the US for redeploying a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to waters east of the Korean peninsula, calling it a “serious threat to the stability” of the region.
First deployed for last week’s joint drills, the USS Ronald Reagan returned on Wednesday for a trilateral exercise with South Korea and Japan, a day after North Korea launched an intermediate-range missile that flew over Japan.
Senior research fellow Lee Sung-hoon of the Institute for National Security Strategy warned of more tests ahead, saying that the North has adopted a more offensive nuclear doctrine, and additional tests will serve “as a touchstone to determine the level of aggression”.
Ewha Womans University’s associate professor of international studies Leif-Eric Easley said the North is developing weapons “as part of a long-term strategy to outrun South Korea in an arms race and drive wedges among US allies”.
“Diplomacy isn’t dead, but talks aren’t about to resume either,” he said. “Pyongyang is still in the middle of a provocation and testing cycle and is likely waiting until after China’s mid-October Communist Party congress to conduct an even more significant test.”