Misguided missile comments
The author is an international, diplomatic and security news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
No country can advance ballistic missile technology in just a week. Even a student cannot expect great scores after studying overnight. But North Korea pulled off the trick by mastering ballistic missile technology in just a week. The dramatic feat was trumpeted by none other than the South Korean military.
After North Korea claimed that it successfully test-fired a hypersonic missile on Jan. 5, the Ministry of National Defense brushed it off as “an exaggeration.”
In its press release on Jan. 7, the defense ministry downplayed the missile’s alleged capability to maneuver in the atmosphere, adding that North Korea has yet to achieve the hypersonic speed required.
After North Korea fired another missile a week later, the defense ministry changed its assessment. The Joint Chiefs of Staff verified the super-speed of the ballistic missile at Mach 10.
Given the announcements by the defense ministry, North Korea somehow miraculously “progressed” in hypersonic missile technology in just seven days.
North Korea could not have suddenly advanced its technology. It would be more correct to say that South Korean military authorities were careless enough to dismiss the North’s announcement as “hyping.” A military provocation should not be judged on by a single launch. It should be understood as the process of accumulating technology. Given its trajectory, Pyongyang does not settle for a single test. It had been dangerous to accuse North Korea of bluffing about its missile technology. It is hard to understand how the defense authorities responsible for safeguarding national security can jump to underestimating the North’s missile threat.
Seoul had been careless in 1998. When North Korea launched a Taepodong-1 ballistic missile and claimed to have used the “rocket” to place a satellite into orbit, the defense ministry accused Pyongyang of lying. The ministry insisted that the missile could not be a part of the North’s program to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Seoul conveniently chooses not to believe Pyongyang’s advances in missile technology.
In 2012, government officials suspected the KN-08 — or Hwasong-13 ICBM — which appeared in a military parade in Pyongyang to be a fake. Five years later, North Korea has fired off a Hwasong-15 ICBM capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The launch in 1998 Pyongyang claimed was for a commercial satellite was indeed aimed at perfecting its ICBM development program. No states in the world now dismiss North Korea of threatening the world with fake missiles. New weaponry the North shows no longer is suspected of being fake.
The fiasco resembles conflicting reports from two Korean envoys of the Joseon Dynasty shortly before the Japanese aggression in 1592. Upon returning home after heading a delegation to Japan, Hwang Yoon-gil warned of a military invasion by Japan. But deputy Kim Sung-il did not agree. Ryu Seong-ryong acting as premier in the Korean monarchy ask Kim how he could be so confident. Kim answered that he could not guarantee Japan would not invade, but he did not wish to scare the people. Kim joined the battle in Jinju when Japan invaded. He was not a coward, but his name is disgracefully recorded for failing to foretell an invasion.
Playing down North Korea’s hypersonic missile capabilities does not make the North Korean military threat go away. Even if it falls short of perfecting super-fast hypersonics, North Korea poses a serious threat with its Scud and longer-range missiles. Even if it is exaggerating, North Korea could be able to perfect the technology within the next five years.
I do not want to believe that the defense ministry tried to understate the North’s missile threat for political reasons ahead of the presidential election in March. A country could be doomed if defense authorities make political judgements. The ministry may have been trying to ease public anxiety.
Nevertheless, our military has been misguided by North Korean threats too many times. In the meantime, North Korea is having a field day.