Pyongyang has reported that on May 4, Kim Jong Un observed an east coast firing drill of “large-caliber long-range multiple rocket launchers and tactical guided weapons.” That would seem to undercut considerable speculation in US and South Korean media that this was either a move to protest the failure of the US-DPRK summit in Hanoi in February or to signal Washington a tougher policy on Kim’s part. It is much more likely that the drill was the “corresponding measure” that Pyongyang had warned of in an April 25 statement by the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC), blasting Seoul for continuing military exercises and other activity the North claims is contrary to inter-Korean agreements reached since the first inter-Korean summit in April 2018.
Both the recent drill and the North’s reporting that Kim had supervised it are in line with criticism of the South in Kim’s speech last month to the Supreme People’s Assembly. In that speech, Kim had pointedly noted, “We have to always keep in mind that peace can be ensured only by powerful military capabilities, and firmly maintain the principle of self-defence and keep increasing the defense capabilities of the country.”
In particular, Kim warned:
“It is important to understand before it becomes too late that it will be hard to expect any progress in the north-south ties and any result of peace and prosperity as long as the war-like south Korean military forces are left intact in their disguised persistent hostile acts including the resumption of the joint military exercises with the U.S. in other codenames, though they were agreed to be stopped…”
Following up Kim’s warnings, the CPRC statement was both at a higher level and tougher than the North’s comment on South Korean military activities over the past year. It was obviously meant to be taken seriously in Seoul. The South’s claim that the MRL drill violated the spirit of the inter-Korean agreements will undoubtedly draw a horse laugh from Pyongyang, which had noted in the CPRC statement that, “Whatever steps we take, the south Korean authorities can never make any complaint, and if they cavil at, that will render the issue and the situation further complicated to let it go out of control.”
There may still be an escalation on the North’s part aimed more clearly and directly at the US, for example the sort of multiple Nodong missile launches that were carried out in 2017. Such a move would stay just within Kim’s pledge not to further test intermediate or long-range missiles, but unmistakably signal a serious deterioration in the atmosphere for US-DPRK talks. Although the firing drill on May 4 was meant primarily for the Blue House, Pyongyang certainly knew—and was perfectly happy in such knowledge—that it would catch Washington’s attention too.