North Korea on Monday continued to fire short-range projectiles from its east coast into the ocean, according to South Korean and US officials. The North Korean military has now launched six such weapons over the past three days.
US officials and experts outside government aren’t sure exactly what the projectiles are. They could be short-range missiles, or they could be rockets fired from a large-caliber gun. Both would travel similar ballistic paths.
Either weapon could reach Seoul and other important targets in South Korea. Over the weekend, the US urged North Korea to stop test shots and other provocative actions, saying they will only further isolate the hermit-like Pyongyang regime.
“We continue to urge the North Korean leadership to heed President Obama’s call to choose the path of peace and come into compliance with its international obligations,” said National Security Council spokesman Caitlin Hayden.
What’s North Korea up to? Are the tests just routine weapon development?
That’s possible. If the weapons are indeed a new type of rocket-propelled artillery, North Korea could be test-firing projectiles to see how they work.
But given the tensions on the Korean Peninsula it’s also possible that North Korea is engaging in a little flexing of its military hardware. Missile launches are a common North Korean reaction to what it considers to be threats from its neighbor to the south and the US.
In particular, Pyongyang has seemed peeved about the recent presence of the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier and its battle group in South Korean waters. The Nimitz reportedly engaged in a naval exercise with regional allies.
Last week a state-run North Korean newspaper complained that the appearance of the Nimitz was meant “to escalate the tension and ignite a nuclear war.”
There’s also a third possibility: North Korea is trying to toy with the United States.
Recall that in April Pyongyang appeared set to test-fire a new type of intermediate-range missile, the Musudan. Musudans were loaded onto launchers and all ready to go on North Korea’s east coast, said South Korean and US reports at the time.
Then, crickets. The Musudan or Musudans were not fired around April 15, the date North Korea celebrates the birth of founder Kim Il-sung. They were unloaded from their launchers and packed away, according to some reports from the region. Or they were still ready and waiting for launch, according to others.
The Korea Times reported in mid-April that Pyongyang was shuttling the missiles around in an attempt to evade US and South Korean surveillance.
The recent spate of short-range launches could be North Korea’s way of thumbing its nose at a world that was expecting something bigger. Or it could be North Korea’s way of distracting adversary intelligence forces from preparations for (finally!) a Musudan launch.
“I suppose one possibility is that the North Koreans are – and I am going to use a term of art here – jerking our chain,” wrote nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, in a post on the North Korea blog 38 North, as to whether Pyongyang will ever fire a Musudan.