North Korea’s conducted its latest weapons test on Sunday, presenting South Korea’s Moon Jae-in with his first foreign policy challenge and raising fears that Pyongyang may have developed a new kind of missile.
Japan’s defence minister said the missile had reached an altitude of 2,000km on its 700km journey, potentially indicating a new type of rocket.
David Wright, a physicist and missile expert, wrote on the All Things Nuclear blog that had the missile been fired on a lower trajectory, its could have flown as far as 4,500km, and putting the US territory of Guam within range.
World leaders, including US President Donald Trump and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, were quick to condemn the test — Pyongyang’s 10th so far this year.
“With the missile impacting so close to Russian soil — in fact, closer to Russia than Japan — the president cannot imagine that Russia is pleased,” the White House said in a statement. “North Korea has been a flagrant menace for far too long . . . Let this latest provocation serve as a call for all nations to implement far stronger sanctions.”
Pyongyang’s latest missile test comes amid a relative easing of tensions after Mr Trump said a fortnight ago he would be “honoured” to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. His comments came weeks after the US president sparked fears of imminent conflict by saying the US was prepared to act unilaterally to “solve” the North Korean problem.
Mr Moon criticised the launch but said his government would not close the door on dialogue with Pyongyang. The new South Korean leader has pledged a dual-track approach of increasing sanctions but also engaging with Mr Kim’s regime.
The North appeared to reciprocate on Saturday, with senior diplomat Choe Son Hui telling reporters in Beijing that Pyongyang would “hold dialogue under right conditions” with the US administration.
Mr Moon’s election heralds a broader reconfiguration of the region’s geopolitics.
A diplomatic freeze between China and South Korea over a US missile shield, whose radar Beijing fears will be used to spy on its military developments, has shown signs of thawing. A top South Korean envoy travelled to China over the weekend for the first high-level government interaction in months, in a visit Seoul said had been requested by Chinese president Xi Jinping.
“[This] can be a starting point for smoothing over many of the crises in the region,” said Song Min-soon, a former South Korean foreign minister. “It is quite natural for any new South Korean president to want to have warm relations with China and this does not mean sacrificing our alliance with the US.”
The visit followed talks between Mr Moon and Mr Xi on the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence platform, or Thaad.
In the months since Thaad was announced, Beijing has ratcheted up economic pressure on Seoul, banning its tour groups from visiting South Korea and shuttering Korean companies operating in China.
On the campaign trail last month, Mr Moon said he would reconsider the Thaad installation, suggesting due process had not been followed in its deployment.
Experts, however, say it will be difficult for Mr Moon to pull the deployment, which may undermine any attempt at rebuilding ties with China.
“[Mr Moon] has acted proactively but I’m afraid he won’t be able to meet Chinese expectations,” said Zhao Tong, an expert on China-Korea relations at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. “China expects South Korea to completely cancel the deployment.”
Mr Moon’s ruling Democratic party on Friday said it would push for a parliamentary hearing on the controversial shield in order to address “national suspicions”.
“We have to address national suspicions regarding the procedural legitimacy of the Thaad deployment, the illegal installation of Thaad equipment and a possible secret deal [with the US over cost-sharing],” the lawmakers said in a statement.
Additional reporting by Kang Buseong in Seoul, Charles Clover in Beijing and Robin Harding in Tokyo