Not a missile until proven so
The author is head of the international, diplomatic and security team at the JoongAng Ilbo.
A new principle that reminds me of the legal principle of “innocent until proven guilty” seems to have appeared. What about “no missile until proven as a missile?” The military wants to call things North Korea fires “projectiles” until they are confirmed as a missiles, and “short-range missiles” until they are confirmed as a ballistic missiles. They are not entirely wrong: It takes time to make a final decision, as military assessment requires intelligence collection through information assets and clandestine analysis. In the world of military intelligence, how much we know is valuable information for the enemy.
Yet it seems that the excessive prudence displayed by the military was not based on the mindset of hiding our skills to confuse North Korea. It is prudence that I cannot understand. There is no interpretation other than being influenced by political prudence to avoid defining North Korea as violating United Nations Security Council resolutions banning the use and development of ballistic missile technology.
On the so-called unidentified projectile launched by North Korea on May 4, our military tried to avoid calling it a “missile.” Then the military said it was presumed to be a “short-range missile” after North Korea launched two missiles on May 9 and one of them flew more than 400 kilometers (249 miles). In the existing weapons system, no rocket or cannon can fly 400 kilometers — only a missile can. So the military had no other answer than presuming the projectile that flew 420 kilometers was a missile.
Offering different explanations on the projectiles launched on May 4 and May 9, the military is contradicting itself. According to the military, the one launched on May 4 was a short-range projectile and the one launched on May 9 was a short-range missile. The photos from May 4 and May 9 on the North Korean Central News Agency showed that the two projectiles were the same. Military experts guess that the ones launched on May 4 and May 9 were the same — possibly a new type of missile North Korea developed by improving Russia’s Iskander missile. On the same missile, however, our military first said it was a projectile and then a missile. Is it different every time?
The military is also very careful to define the short-range missile North Korea launched on May 9 as a ballistic missile. Security experts say it showed a unique trajectory unlike existing ballistic missiles. Nevertheless, it doesn’t change the fact that the missile launched on May 9 was a missile based on ballistic technology — if it was not a cruise missile.
Twenty-one years ago, North Korea confused the international community. At the time, our military’s position was clear. On Aug. 31, 1998, North Korea launched the Daepodong-1 missile. On Sept. 4, North Korea claimed that it was not a long-range missile but a satellite to “transmit songs of Gen. Kim Il Sung and Gen. Kim Jong-il around the world.” But the military authorities argued that it was a long-range missile test, not a satellite. A three-star general in the Joint Chiefs of Staffs, who was on an emergency duty at the time, said that North Korea’s claim of a satellite was just word play.
What Korean people want is a judgement of security, not politics. If the Ministry of Unification puts negotiations with North Korea and inter-Korean relations on the forefront when making a decision, the military has to prioritize security first. If the military acts like the ministry, that is a problem for our security.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 15, Page 27