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Having blinked during Trump era, Kim Jong-Un punctuates Biden's Asia visit with ICBM launch

Kim Jong-Un inspects troops who took part in the military parade to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People's Revolutionary Army in this undated photo released by the state-run Korean Central News Agency on April 29.
Special to WorldTribune.com

By John J. Metzler

North Korea has been making a lot of noise, but few seemed to notice.  Kim Jong-Un’s reclusive communist regime has fired off  23 missiles since the beginning of the year to the yawns of world opinion.  So, is another North Korean missile showdown creeping up to surprise the West as we are intensely focused on Russia’s war in Ukraine?

It appears Kim Jong-Un is seeking attention if not validation as a global bad guy, a role his elders in Moscow and Beijing seem to comfortably hold.  North Korea’s sustained and dangerous antics raise the political stakes in East Asia as the United States faces the appalling aftermath of the Afghan debacle last year. Moreover, anguished East Asian allies fear what future actions Beijing’s military may take towards democratic Taiwan.

Just hours after President Joe Biden left Asia after an overdue visit to South Korea and Japan, the quaintly titled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) popped off another four missiles, including an intercontinental ballistic one. The message was unmistakable. Some pundits argued earlier that the rocket firings or even an underground nuclear test would transpire during the presidential visit to Seoul and Tokyo just to gain extra points.

Joe Biden’s trip to South Korea as president was politically important and strategically vital.

Though the USA’s military defense treaty with the Republic of Korea is unquestioned, the summit focused on meeting South Korea’s new conservative President Yoon Suk-Yeol as well as visiting Samsung’s high tech semiconductor plant.  President Biden called the seventy-year-old U.S./ROK defense Alliance “a lynchpin of peace, stability and prosperity.”

Here we have a good blend of underscoring South Korea’s role both as a vibrant military ally and high tech hub and trading partner.

Significantly, President Biden failed to go north of Seoul, the vibrant and bustling South Korean capital, to the foreboding Demilitarized zone (DMZ)  where at the iconic truce village of Panmunjom so many American presidents have stood alongside American and South Korean forces at the diving line between both Korean states.

The DMZ remains a stark reminder of why we are in Korea in the first place; it evokes divided Berlin during the Cold War. American presidents would visit to underscore the glaring political lessons and the military significance of our defense commitments.

Biden’s East Asia visit had much to do about China, after all the 800-pound dragon in the room.

Conversations focused on isolating and countering Beijing’s military and commercial interests.  Yet is China nudging its political comrades in Pyongyang to create another security concern?  Possibly so. On 25 May the DPRK launched another three ballistic missiles.

Since early 2022, North Korea has launched six Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).

In the meantime, the UN Security Council met to discuss a draft resolution on the recent North Korea missile firings.  The plan by U.S. Amb. Linda Thomas Greenfield was to pass yet another international condemnation of the missile tests as in the past.

Prior to the vote Amb. Thomas-Greenfield asserted, “The DPRK has taken the Council’s silence as a green light to act with impunity and escalate tensions on the Peninsula. It has engaged in an unprovoked series of 23 – and let me repeat that – 23 ballistic missile launches since the beginning of the year and is actively preparing to conduct a nuclear test.”

But in a once rare but now increasingly common abuse of their double vetoes, both Moscow and Beijing shut down the resolution. The United Kingdom deputy delegate James Kariuki later surmised, “We are concerned that the DPRK may resume testing of nuclear weapons… North Korea must not be allowed to test missiles and other weapons with impunity.”

So, we return to a remarkably similar, if downplayed, situation as in 2017 when the new American President Donald Trump forcefully confronted the North Korean dictator. The ensuing standoff saw Kim Jong-Un blink, then agree to negotiations at the Singapore Summit in June 2018, and subsequently shelve his missile and nuclear tests.

The Pyongyang regime refrained from provocative missile and nuclear testing for a nearly three years.

During the recent Summit with Joe Biden, South Korean President Yoon stated, “I commit to resolutely safeguard peace on the Korean Peninsula and encourage North Korea to come forward for dialogue and engage in practical cooperation.”

He stressed the “common goal of the complete denuclearization of the DPRK” adding “there is no compromise for security” adding “strong deterrence against North Korea is paramount.”

Confronting North Korea’s nuclear ambitions remains paramount for Korean and regional peace.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]
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