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[Research Reports] North Korean Missile Launches, the Beijing Olympics and the Ukraine Situation

Shunji Hiraiwa (Professor, Nanzan University)
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Research Group on 'Korean Peninsula' FY2021# 7

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.

North Korean missile launches and the Beijing Winter Olympics

At the beginning of 2022, North Korea conducted a series of missile launches. It can be said that this follows the policy of strengthening the country's defenses approved at the 8th Workers' Party of Korea Congress in January 2021, but North Korea accelerated its pace in 2022 and went through seven missile launches in January alone. Naturally, the international community severely criticized this and increased its vigilance. At the same time, the connection between these launches and the Beijing Winter Olympics held in February attracted international attention. PRC President Xi Jinping is certain to aim for a third term as General Secretary at the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress scheduled for fall 2022, so the success of the Beijing Winter Olympics was essential to him; a North Korean missile launch would dampen the celebratory mood of the Beijing Olympics. The Beijing Olympics already saw international pressure placed on the Xi administration when the international community, led by the United States, refrained from dispatching VIPs to the opening and closing ceremonies due to human rights issues in China. That is why China would have wanted to end the Beijing Olympics successfully, and for that reason it would have wanted North Korea to avoid launching missiles and disrupting the situation on the Korean Peninsula. On the other hand, North Korea had requested that the United States withdraw its hostile policy toward it since the de facto failure of the second US-North Korea summit meeting in Hanoi and had not responded to a request for unconditional dialogue by the Biden administration. Relations with China, which backs North Korea, are so important that North Korea must have been cautious about acts that would adversely affect Sino-North Korean relations. Under these circumstances, the international community was paying attention to how much consideration North Korea would give to China.

In fact, North Korea informed China on January 5, when it carried out its first missile launch of 2022, that it would not be participating in the Beijing Olympics. North Korea had been suspended from participating in the Olympic Games until the end of 2022 because it had unilaterally withdrawn from the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and thus could not participate as a country, but it made a point of informing China in the form of a letter that it would not participate in the Beijing Olympics. According to the Korean Central News Agency, the letter said that the reasons for not participating in Olympics were "hostile forces' moves" and the worldwide pandemic, and stated "we could not take part (in the Olympics), but we would fully support the Chinese comrades in all their work". In addition, North Korea defended China's position by accusing the diplomatic boycotts by the United States and other countries as "an insult to the spirit of the international Olympic Charter" and as "a base act of attempting to disgrace the international image of China." Sending such a letter on the very day of the missile launch also appears meant to convey that the missile launch was not intended to have a negative impact on the Beijing Olympics. That is why North Korea conducted other test launches in rapid succession after the letter was sent on January 5 but refrained from launching missiles from January 30, five days before the Olympics. This was apparently done by North Korea out of consideration for China.

However, on February 27, a week after the Olympics ended, North Korea launched a ballistic missile. North Korea announced this as a test for "developing a reconnaissance satellite," which had been defined at the 8th Party Congress as one of the agenda for strengthening national defense. In addition, a missile was launched on March 5, and North Korea announced that their "National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA) and the Academy of Defense Science conducted another important test under the plan of developing a reconnaissance satellite." The Beijing Paralympics had begun on March 4, and March 5 was the day that the National People's Congress, China's central legislature, convened its annual session. Later analysis suggests that the February 27 and March 5 launches were both of ICBM-class missiles. How then are we to understand North Korea's missile launches? Since North Korea accorded the bare minimum of consideration to China's wishes during the Beijing Olympics, the possibility cannot be denied that they originally planned to resume launch tests after the Olympics in order to strengthen their defense capabilities. However, it was probably the situation in Ukraine that had a greater influence on North Korea's decision.

China and North Korea's responses to Russia's invasion of Ukraine

Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine on February 24, four days after the closing ceremony, as if it had been waiting for the end of the Beijing Olympics. China and North Korea responded slightly differently. Although China is basically said to be close to Russia, it has been wary about standing completely on Russia's side, and abstained instead of vetoing the resolution condemning Russia submitted by the United States and others at the February 25 UN Security Council meeting. At the UN General Assembly Emergency Special Session held on March 2, China also abstained rather than opposed to the resolution calling for Russia to immediately suspend military operations. On February 24, the first day of the invasion of Ukraine, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who had a telephone conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, said regarding Russia's claim that "we also see a complex and unique historical context on the Ukraine issue, and understand Russia's legitimate concerns on security issues" and that "a balanced, effective and sustained European security mechanism should be finally formed through dialogue and negotiation." China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying stressed, "China calls on all sides to exercise restraint and prevent the situation from getting out of control...[and]...hopes all sides will keep the door to peace open and continue to work for de-escalation through dialogue, consultation and negotiation," so this can be considered China's position. If China were to stand completely on Russia's side, it would be alienated from the international community, which is not what China wants, but it also does not intend to criticize Russia in the same way as others in the international community, as China might be the next to come under criticism depending on developments in East Asia. This seemingly explains why China is not on one side or the other, but instead opposes actions that make things worse, aims for a peaceful and diplomatic solution, and is prepared to act as an intermediary in some cases. China will endeavor to behave in such a way that the international community does not regard that China and Russia are the same, even while showing Russia a certain level of understanding.

On the other hand, a spokesperson for North Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs appeared to defend Russia when speaking on February 28 about the Russian army's invasion of Ukraine: "The root cause of the Ukraine crisis totally lies in the hegemonic policy of the US and the West which indulge themselves in high-handedness and arbitrariness towards other countries." In addition, North Korea clearly supported Russia by voting against the resolution condemning Russia at the Emergency Special Session of the UN General Assembly and criticized the United States and Western nations. For North Korea, Russia is an entity that alongside China has defended North Korea's positions in forums such as the United Nations. It would thus appear that North Korea determined that its relations with Russia could be further strengthened by supporting Russia and criticizing the United States in this case.

Of course, the differences in the responses of China and North Korea to the situation in Ukraine are due to the differences in their positions in the international community; the attitudes of China and North Korea toward Russia are not significantly different. However, the turmoil in Ukraine could have served as sufficient reasoning for North Korea in explaining to China that the post-Olympics missile launches were covering fire for Russia. To reject this explanation would make China's relations with Russia difficult. In other words, North Korea can justify its missile launches by taking advantage of the situation in Ukraine. Furthermore, the missile launches also send a message to the United States that the situation on the Korean Peninsula carries the risk of becoming as tense as that in Ukraine, depending on developments.

Needless to say, China's and North Korea's attitudes toward the United States are not completely the same. China regards the North Korean issue as an area where it can cooperate with the United States, much to the displeasure of North Korea, which expects China to have its back during any confrontation with the United States. However, North Korea cannot afford any deterioration in its relations with China because its relations with the United States are not taking the course that it wishes. That is why, despite its basic policy of strengthening national defense, North Korea refrained from launching missiles during the Beijing Olympics out of consideration for China's political schedule. However, Russia suddenly appeared as being in fierce conflict with the United States, meaning that North Korea was dealt an old but new card.

Complications in the Korean Peninsula situation due to the variable of Russia

North Korea will continue to conduct various forms of missile launches in accordance with its policy of strengthening national defense. This will certainly lead to heightened tensions in US-North Korea relations. For that reason, having China at its back is important for North Korea, and it should have had to pay close attention to China's political agenda when conducting test launches. However, the situation changed drastically due to the turmoil in Ukraine. Using the excuse of providing covering fire for Russia, North Korea is now able to push ahead with strengthening its defense capabilities without worrying about China's political calendar.

Chinese support has always held tremendous importance for North Korea but, at the same time, North Korea is also wary of China's influence becoming too great. During the fierce Sino-Soviet conflict of the Cold War era, North Korea swung like a pendulum between China and the Soviet Union, trying to strike a balance in their influence to avoid one of them becoming excessive. North Korea alternately played the Soviet card against China and the Chinese card against the Soviet Union, and received needed security and economic cooperation from both while maintaining political freedom at an appropriate distance from the socialist superpowers China and the Soviet Union. Of course, the situation is very different now than it was in the Cold War, and China's significance to North Korea is incomparably greater than Russia's. However, Russia being in sharp contention with the United States is useful for North Korea in its own confrontations with the United States. On the premise of cooperating with Russia, North Korea is at risk of carrying out a nuclear test opposed not only by the United States but also by China. If North Korea judges that the Ukraine issue is of such urgency for the United States that the US will be unable to pay sufficient attention to North Korea's actions, North Korea may consider it an ideal opportunity to strengthen its defense capabilities. With the addition of the 'Russia' variable, the situation on the Korean Peninsula has become even more complicated, and it must be said that there is greater risk that North Korea will take more drastic actions. North Korea may push ahead with ICBM and other missile launches as well as nuclear tests even while the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which is crucial for Xi Jinping to stay in office for a third term, is underway. The turmoil in Ukraine has thus a great impact on the Korean Peninsula situation.

(This is an English translation of a Japanese paper originally published on March 18, 2022)