SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - North Korea on Thursday (Jan 20) ratcheted up its threat level dramatically by hinting at lifting a moratorium on major weapons tests, with South Korea reluctant to strongly protest the North's continued missile tests despite mounting tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
The policy-making politburo of the ruling Workers' Party, presided over by leader Kim Jong-un, held a meeting and decided to "examine the issue of restarting all temporarily-suspended activities," the North's official Korean Central News Agency said Thursday.
Pyongyang's hint at restarting its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests came a week after the Joe Biden administration imposed sanctions on six North Koreans involved in the regime's missile programs on Jan 13.
The provocative act also came after the North carried out four missile tests this month, including what Pyongyang calls two "hypersonic missiles," prompting a closed-door meeting of the United Nations Security Council, slated for Thursday.
The North's latest brinkmanship should be taken seriously by all parties involved, especially the Moon Jae-in administration, since the resumption of major weapons tests by Pyongyang is feared to scupper Seoul's dialogue-centred inter-Korean policy.
North Korea has maintained a moratorium on nuclear and ICBM testing since April 2018, largely as part of its critical leverage in negotiations with the US. As a reason for considering the end of the freeze on major weapons tests, Pyongyang blames the US for its "hostile policy" despite "trust-building measures" it undertook, failing to mention its continued shows of force.
Pyongyang appears to have carefully timed the threatening statement to draw fresh attention from US President Biden, who has wrapped up his first year in office with his energy focused on Russia's hostile posture toward Ukraine when it comes to diplomatic issues.
For North Korea, whose faltering economy is being further damaged by the Covid-19 pandemic, a turning point appears to be needed as negotiations with the US have stalled since the collapse of the second US-NK summit in 2019 with the Biden administration showing no sign of easing sanctions. North Korea recently resumed rail-borne trade with China, its key supporter - another signal that the poverty-stricken regime needs outside help.
The North's threat to restart nuclear weapons development is also interpreted as a sign that it wants to squeeze more concessions from its neighbours, including South Korea, which is set to elect a new president in March.
Meanwhile, the North's recent provocative missile tests suggest that its technologies are evolving at a faster pace than previously thought. It fired two short-range ballistic missiles eastward from an airport in Pyongyang on Monday, with the KCNA boasting of "accuracy, security and efficiency of the operation of the weapon system under production."
Monday's launch came three days after the North fired two short-range ballistic missiles from train cars into the East Sea. The unusual pace of the missile launches, coupled with their allegedly enhanced accuracy, has stirred up North Korea watchers as well as policymakers at home and abroad.
Despite soaring tensions, the Moon administration remains cautious in criticising the apparent sabre-rattling by referring to the North's recent weapons tests with terms such as "concern," "deep concern," "regrettable" or "very regrettable." Conspicuously missing from the statements by the presidential National Security Council is "provocation," which South Korean officials stopped using in September last year when Kim Yo-jung - the sister of Kim Jong-un - blasted President Moon for calling the North's missile launches a "provocation."
Given the latest spike in tensions, it is understandable that critics here are raising questions about President Moon's continued initiative to agree to an end-of-war declaration on the Korean Peninsula. His chances of success are, after all, growing slimmer in the face of the provocative acts by the North toying with the nuclear card.
- The Korea Herald is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.