It’s only a flesh wound.
That’s the line that the South Korean government and the semi-permanent community of ineffectual “Korea watchers” who populate the offices along Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest Washington are taking in response to North Korea’s latest provocation.
Sure, Pyongyang this week fired off what the South Korean newspaper Joongang Ilbo reported was a “‘new-type tactical guided weapon’ developed by an institute responsible for [North Korea]’s missile program.” The new weapon, experts suspect, could have been a variant of a short-range ballistic missile called the 9K720 Iskander. That missile, displayed at a recent military parade in Pyongyang, could do great damage to South Korea and Japan. And sure, Kim Jong-un’s latest provocation represented a stark break from the happy talk and placidity that has constituted the last 18 months of U.S.-South Korean-North Korean relations.
But not to worry, they say. After all, the test “isn’t a break in North Korea’s self-imposed suspension of nuclear and ICBM tests,” reassures Suzanne DiMaggio of the Carnegie Endowment. (In Washington, theirs is that really big building on Massachusetts and 18th Street.) North Korea only said it wouldn’t test the really big weapons, you see, so this “new-type tactical guided weapon” is nothing to worry about.
The South Korean government, for its part, has remained largely tight-lipped. President Moon Jae-in has yet to tweet on the development, though he did, on Thursday morning, issue a message praising the brutal dictator of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. With the North Korean leader no longer taking his calls, Mr. Moon, currently on a swing through Central Asia, has evidently gone in search of other totalitarians to hobnob with.
In truth, the North’s test is further evidence that “the process” — diplomatic detente and subsequent talks among South Korea, North Korea and the United States — is breaking down, if not fully broken down altogether.
Mr. Moon, who has staked his presidency on warming relations between the Koreas, is having a hard time even getting a meeting with Mr. Kim. The North Korean leader was supposed to come to Seoul this spring, though the kibosh has been put on that indefinitely, South Korean officials say. Now, Mr. Moon has been reduced to telling Mr. Kim publicly that he will meet him anywhere, anytime. But rather than accept his offer, Mr. Kim instead looks set to head to Vladivostok next week to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The dormancy, if not death, of the denuclearization discussion is hardly cause for despair: The focus on denuclearizing North Korea has always been myopic. The North’s weapons programs are a symptom of the underlying rot of the regime, not the disease itself. Its nuclear program has demonstrated that the Kim regime has been willing to devote huge resources to arming itself with weapons that could kill millions while simultaneously allowing hundreds of thousands of Koreans to starve to death. The regime makes no secret of the fact that its goal is the reunification of the two Koreas — under its rule. Yes, nuclear weapons serve to strengthen the regime. But a Kim regime without nuclear weapons is still not one that the world should be willing to accept.
In a sense, then, Mr. Kim did the world a favor by testing a weapon this week: He reminded a forgetful world of the character of his regime. A nuclear or ICBM test would be even more of a memory-jogger.
• Ethan Epstein is deputy opinion editor of The Washington Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethanepstiiiine.
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