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Japan, South Korea differ in assessment of DPRK missile

By Sugimoto Koji and Chiba Tomoyuki


The Japanese government regards North Korea’s Jan. 30 missile launch as, in the words of a senior official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), “a change in dimension from past missile launches” and plans to strengthen cooperation between Japan, the U.S., and South Korea to increase pressure on the DPRK.


In contrast, South Korea has so far taken a conciliatory stance toward North Korea. Some Japanese government officials are wary that South Korea will use the Japanese government’s recent recommendation of the Sado gold mine (Niigata Prefecture) for inscription on the World Heritage list as a pretext to disrupt the trilateral partnership.


On Jan. 30, MOFA Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau Director-General Funakoshi Takehiro spoke by phone with U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Sung Kim. When Funakoshi pointed out that the missile launched on Jan. 30 was “posed a greater threat [than the other missiles tests North Korea carried out earlier in the month], Kim said, “We take [the recent missile launch] very seriously.”


The Japanese and U.S. governments are becoming increasingly concerned because the latest launch is evidence of a “change in policy” by North Korea. Since the 2018 U.S.-North Korea summit, Pyongyang has voluntarily continued its moratorium on nuclear tests and the launch of ICBMs, which can reach the U.S. mainland.


Regarding North Korea’s most recent missile launch, the Japanese government announced that it was a “ballistic missile of intermediate range or longer.” In contrast, the South Korean government announced that it was an “intermediate-range ballistic missile.”


“By stating that the missile was of ‘intermediate range,’ the ROK probably aimed to convey the message that North Korea did not break the moratorium,” said a senior MOFA official wary of South Korea’s announcement. 


However, North Korea has in the past said that “intermediate-range ballistic missiles” are subject to the moratorium. For this reason, the focus from now on will be on how the trilateral partnership can increase pressure on North Korea, including increasing the scale of U.S.-ROK military exercises. The Japanese government’s recent recommendation of the “Sado gold mine,” however, may affect trilateral cooperation, as South Korea opposes this Japanese initiative.


Japan is wary that South Korea may, under the pretext of opposing Japan’s recommendation of the “Sado gold mine,” take a passive stance toward trilateral cooperation in an attempt to win over North Korea and China.


The Biden administration attaches importance to trilateral cooperation among Japan, the U.S., and South Korea, and a plan to hold a foreign ministerial meeting of the three countries in February is being discussed. “There is no way that South Korea will pull out of the trilateral partnership just because Japan recommended the Sado gold mine,” said a senior Japanese government official, warning South Korea.

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