Mum’s the wordNorth Korea test-fired two short-range cruise missiles on Sunday. That was confirmed by a U.S. media outlet three days later. According to the report, North Korea is believed to have fired the two missiles shortly after the U.S. Secretary of State and Defense Secretary’s visit to South Korea to discuss the new U.S. administration’s North Korea policies with their South Korean counterparts — and after the end of the annual Korea-U.S. joint command post training last week. North Korea appears to have put into action what Kim Yo-jong, the powerful younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, threatened in a statement denouncing South Korea last week. “Don’t do things that can get rid of your sleep at night!” she warned.
The recalcitrant state probably fired those short-range missiles to provoke the United States — but not too much. The launch of cruise missiles that do not use the ballistic missile technology does not constitute a violation of UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea. For Pyongyang’s part, it could not accept the U.S. administration’s repeated emphasis of a “complete denuclearization of North Korea” as manifested in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue among the United States, Japan, Australia and India. At the same time, it could not rush to high-intensity provocations before Joe Biden’s administration finishes a review of America’s North Korea policy. Therefore, the cruise missile provocation was the only choice it could take.
Nevertheless, South Korea must not underestimate the substantial threat from those cruise missiles. In a Workers’ Party Congress in January, North Korea vowed to develop tactical nuclear bombs and cruise missiles can serve as the most effective — and realistic — means available to deliver tactical bombs. If a small warhead is loaded on cruise missiles, that poses a serious threat to the security of South Korea.
Nevertheless, South Korea’s military kept unusually quite about the tests. North Korea can ratchet up the level of provocation after Washington presents a new direction to its North Korea policy after reviewing it. The Moon Jae-in administration must not sit on its hands.
Another problem is our military authorities’ decision to not alert the general public about the missile launches. As a result, South Korean citizens came to know the firing of the cruise missiles through the foreign news media. That is a sharp contrast with the practice established since 2010 that the Joint Chiefs of Staff announced all types of North Korea’s provocations immediately after they were detected. Our military said, “We don’t announce all facts.” That sounds as if the military made the decision to not disclose Sunday’s launches because of its strategic judgment. To the people, however, that’s seen as kowtowing to North Korea.
Last April 14, our military immediately released information on the North’s firing of cruise missiles. The military doesn’t have to fuel people’s security concerns overly. But North Korea’s actions are directly related to our safety. In a weird development, our people came to know of the North’s missile provocation through foreign media outlets. We wonder what gains the government thinks it can make by keeping mum.