What's Different About North Korea's Latest Missile Launch (And Why Washington Should Worry)

A North Korean People’s Army service member photographs Rex Tillerson at the Korean border. Flickr/U.S. Forces Korea

Pyongyang’s willingness to violate UN resolutions so quickly after Moon’s inauguration shows that it will not act benevolently toward the new president.

This is also North Korea’s first provocation since Moon Jae-in was elected president of South Korea on May 9. Moon, a left-of-center candidate, has criticized his predecessors and Washington, DC for an overreliance on sanctions and pressure tactics. Instead, he advocates a return to the less conditional engagement policies of previous liberal presidents, including Roh Moo-hyun for whom Moon served as chief of staff. Roh’s term was marked by tense relations with Washington over policy differences on North Korea.

Moon sees economic engagement with North Korea as a means of bringing the north back to the negotiating table and eventually achieving “economic unification” of the two Koreas. North Korea’s willingness to violate UN resolutions so quickly after Moon’s inauguration shows that the regime will not act any more benevolently to Moon than to his conservative predecessors. In 2009, Pyongyang similarly disabused President Obama of his view that the regime would act differently than it had under George W. Bush.

Moon “strongly condemn[ed]” the missile launch and declared that while “South Korea remains open to the possibility of dialogue with North Korea, it is only possible when North Korea shows a change in attitude.”

More Pressure Needed

North Korea’s defiance of the international community was particularly embarrassing for China since the launch occurred as their leaders were assembled in Beijing for the Belt and Road Forum. If Beijing does not respond firmly to Pyongyang’s violation of UN resolutions, then President Trump should end his restraint on imposing stronger sanctions on Pyongyang as well as more fully enforcing U.S. laws through secondary sanctions on Chinese violators.

Moon now faces a dilemma on pursuing his intended engagement towards North Korea or defending UN resolutions. While his initial response appears pragmatic, there are concerns in Washington that he will return to the one-sided provision of economic largesse to Pyongyang without first demanding compliance with UN resolutions or the regime’s previous pledges to denuclearize.

Bruce Klingner is the senior research fellow for Northeast Asia in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.

Image: A North Korean People’s Army service member photographs Rex Tillerson at the Korean border. Flickr/U.S. Forces Korea

Pages