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(News Focus) N. Korea's missile testing raises concern about impact to diplomatic push for dialogue

All News 15:53 October 19, 2021

By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, Oct. 19 (Yonhap) -- North Korea fired an apparent submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) into the East Sea on Tuesday in yet another show of force, potentially complicating South Korea's bid to resume dialogue and reinvigorate the long-stalled peace process.

The question is the North's intentions behind mixed signals it has been sending recently -- a string of missile launches and indications of a desire to restart talks.

It remains unclear whether the unpredictable Kim Jong-un regime has decided to turn down dialogue offers by South Korea and the U.S. or it is upping the ante in preparations for negotiations.

Its latest provocation, which violates U.N. Security Council resolutions, came in the midst of a brisk round of diplomatic consultations on Pyongyang.

The Moon Jae-in administration has been making last-ditch efforts for a breakthrough in the Korea peace process that lost steam with a no-deal Hanoi summit in 2019 between Kim and then U.S. President Donald Trump.

A TV screen in Seoul Station shows North Korea's firing of an apparent submarine-launched ballistic missile on Oct. 19, 2021. (Yonhap)

Moon stated that he will not give up on efforts for the resumption of inter-Korean dialogue and denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington through the end of his term in early May 2022.

He again used his U.N. General Assembly speech last month to propose the declaration of a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War. Kim Yo-jong, the influential sister of the North's leader, soon branded Moon's offer as "an interesting and an admirable idea."

Her brother has also sent a rather positive signal to the liberal Moon administration, raising hopes of progress in the campaign to improve inter-Korean ties.

South Korean officials have been proactively pitching the proposed end-of-war declaration, increasingly holding face-to-face consultations with their American counterparts.

In Washington, South Korea's chief nuclear envoy Noh Kyu-duk met with U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Sung Kim on Monday (local time) to discuss ways to bring the North back to the negotiating table.

In the session, Noh said, Moon's end-of-war declaration proposal was among the key agenda items, along with the issue of providing humanitarian aid to the North.

Kim, the U.S. envoy, reaffirmed that the U.S. remains to open to dialogue with Pyongyang but made clear that the Joe Biden administration will keep sanctions in place until the North makes concrete steps toward denuclearization. He is scheduled to visit Seoul later this week to continue bilateral discussions.

"The U.S. continues to reach out to Pyongyang to restart dialogue. Our intent remains the same. We harbor no hostile intent towards the DPRK, and we are open to meetings without preconditions," he said, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

"Even as we remain open to dialogue, we also have a responsibility to implement the U.N. Security Council resolutions addressing the DPRK," he said.

This file photo shows South Korean nuclear envoy Noh Kyu-duk (L) speaking in a joint press conference with U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Sung Kim after their meeting at the State Department in Washington on Aug. 30, 2021. (Yonhap)

Hours after his statement, the North lobbed the missile, which could be viewed as a slap in the face for Washington.

The North also carried out what is believed to be its first SLBM test in two years, while the top U.S. and Japanese intelligence officials -- Avril Haines and Hiroaki Takizawa, respectively -- were visiting the peninsula.

Shortly after the missile test, Suh Hoon, Cheong Wa Dae director of national security, convened an emergency meeting of the National Security Council, which expressed "deep regret" over North Korea's missile launch and urged Pyongyang to return to dialogue.

The two photos show Suh Hoon (L), director of national security at Cheong Wa Dae, and U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines (R) arriving at a hotel in Seoul on Oct. 18, 2021. (Yonhap)

Some experts here say North Korea might be showing its determination to push ahead with its weapons development and predict more missile tests in the coming months.

"North Korea is expected to continue missile tests by the end of the year to complete the development of new weapons and openly show off its military capability to the international community and to its people," Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at Sejong Institute, said.

"As China hosts the Winter Olympic Games in February, (the North) may refrain from missile tests in early 2022, which means it will conduct more tests of new weapons as much as possible before then."

Other pundits say North Korea's worsening economic woes amid the COVID-19 pandemic may add momentum toward resuming talks as it is eager to revive its moribund economy.

Nonetheless, they noted, a bumpy road lies ahead in light of the North's recent spate of missile tests, which are likely to rekindle doubts among American officials about the future of denuclearization talks.

"A series of meetings between nuclear envoys and intelligence chiefs indicate that the Moon administration is making last-ditch diplomatic efforts to leave his legacy on inter-Korean relations before the March 2022 presidential election," Lee Shin-hwa, a professor at Korea University, said.

"Moon may want to make some progress in the coming months to raise the possibility of meeting with Kim Jong-un in Beijing in time for the Winter Olympics in February, but the prospect remains uncertain for now."


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