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Two Koreas showcase weapons tech despite attempts for talks

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President Moon Jae-in takes off a flight helmet as he sits in an FA-50 light combat aircraft at Seoul Airbase in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, Wednesday, during an event at the Seoul International Aerospace & Defense Exhibition 2021. Yonhap
President Moon Jae-in takes off a flight helmet as he sits in an FA-50 light combat aircraft at Seoul Airbase in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, Wednesday, during an event at the Seoul International Aerospace & Defense Exhibition 2021. Yonhap

By Nam Hyun-woo

The two Koreas are flexing their respective military muscles by each showcasing their latest developments in weapons technology, despite growing efforts to induce North Korea to return to denuclearization talks.

President Moon Jae-in paid a visit to the Seoul International Aerospace & Defense Exhibition 2021, Wednesday, which kicked off a day earlier at Seoul Airbase in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, and stressed the importance of defense technologies for national security.

"A strong defense capability always has its goal in keeping peace," Moon said during an event at the exhibition. "South Korea will pursue a smart military, based on cutting-edge technologies, and join global efforts to maintain peace."

During his speech, Moon stressed the importance of South Korea's recent development of the KF-21 Boramae fighter jet and the Nuri space launch vehicle, which are touted as the most recent results of the country's efforts to improve its defense technology.

President Moon Jae-in speaks during an event at the Seoul International Aerospace & Defense Exhibition 2021 at Seoul Airbase in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, Wednesday. Yonhap
President Moon Jae-in speaks during an event at the Seoul International Aerospace & Defense Exhibition 2021 at Seoul Airbase in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, Wednesday. Yonhap

The Nuri is a domestically developed rocket that can place an over 1-ton satellite into orbit. This is expected to give South Korea the ability to launch military satellites without the assistance of other countries. The rocket is scheduled for a test-flight Thursday, and if the launch is successful Korea will become the seventh country to possess a domestically developed launch vehicle capable of placing an over 1-ton satellite into orbit.

Since the Nuri uses the same technology as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), there has been speculation that it could be used as a weapon, despite denials from the government.

"The Nuri is liquid-fueled, which means it takes a long time to fuel it, thus it is incorrect to allege that the rocket could become the basis for an ICBM," a source in the administration said.

A ballistic missile allegedly being launched from a submarine in waters off the North, Tuesday, is seen in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency, the following day. Yonhap
A ballistic missile allegedly being launched from a submarine in waters off the North, Tuesday, is seen in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency, the following day. Yonhap

Moon's appearance at the defense exhibition came hours after North Korea announced the missile it test fired Tuesday was a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).

North Korea's Korean Central News Agency said Wednesday that the country had test fired "a new type of submarine-launched strategic ballistic missile" from "the 8.24 Yongung ship from which the first submarine-launched strategic ballistic missile was successfully launched five years ago." The 8.24 Yongung is a submarine that North Korea used to test its Pukguksong-1 SLBM in 2016.

The agency also said the missile had "lots of advanced control guidance technologies including flank mobility and gliding skip mobility." The missile test and announcement have been interpreted as the North's attempt to counter South Korea's successful launching of its own domestically developed SLBM from the submarine Dosan Ahn Chang-ho in September.

Experts said the North Korean missile appeared to be a version of its existing KN-23, modified so that it could be launched from a submarine. Unlike North Korea's claim that it was a strategic weapon ― one designed for mass destruction ― experts said the KN-23 is closer to tactical weapon, designed for use on the battlefield.

"The missile was showcased during the North's military exhibition on Oct. 11, and the regime launched it soon after the showcase," said Shin Jong-woo, a senior researcher at the Korea Defense and Security Forum.

"Though the North fired a tactical weapon this time, it also showed a missile assumed to be an ICBM. This means that the North is asserting that it may test an ICBM, spoiling the current move for a declaration to officially end the Korean War, unless the U.S. or South Korea agrees to its demands."

In recent weeks, the Moon administration has been striving to facilitate an "end-of-war" declaration involving the two Koreas, the U.S. and possibly China, as a means to bring the Kim Jong-un regime back to denuclearization talks.

In response to President Moon's proposal, however, Pyongyang has demanded that Washington remove sanctions placed upon it, and that Seoul abandon its "double standards" as preconditions for talks. The rhetoric is assumed to be targeting South Korea's SLBM test in September. When North Korea launched a ballistic missile from a train the same day, Seoul defined this as a "provocation."

Recently, the Moon government has stopped using the term "provocation" despite the North's missile tests last month, but Pyongyang continues to strenuously react to Seoul's improvements in its defense capability, raising concerns that there will be little progress towards a declaration ending the war.

The U.S. has also yet to offer any enticements for the North's return to dialogue, reiterating its stance that it is open to talks without any preconditions, while condemning Pyongyang's missile tests.

"Special Representative (for North Korea) Sung Kim emphasized U.S. condemnation of the DPRK's Oct. 19 ballistic missile launch, which violates multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, and called on the DPRK to refrain from further provocations and engage in sustained and substantive dialogue," the Department of State said in a statement. The DPRK stands for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

"If the North tests an ICBM, the U.S. will see it as the regime crossing a red line," Shin said. "Given this, Pyongyang appears to be escalating the tension to just below that level to maximize its leverage in talks."

Go Myong-hyun, a senior research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said, "We should see Tuesday's launch as North Korea deciding on a compromise in showcasing its military power, in order to get the U.S. to pay greater attention to issues on the Korean Peninsula."


Nam Hyun-woo namhw@koreatimes.co.kr


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