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An arms race is heating up on the Korean Peninsula. Is the window for diplomacy closing?

Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

SINGAPORE — Three years ago this week, South Korean President Moon Jae-in drew wide applause from thousands of North Koreans in Pyongyang when he declared "a new era of peace."

He and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had agreed on "concrete measures to completely eliminate the fear of war and the risk of armed conflicts on the Korean Peninsula," Moon told the crowd at the time.

Days before the anniversary of that momentous speech, the two Koreas find themselves far from that promise. Rival ballistic missiles tests this week by both nations signaled an escalating arms race rather than the careful drawdown the leaders once pledged. The dual launches raised fresh regional security fears at a time of increasing tensions between the U.S. and China, and served as a stark reminder of Washington's failure to stem North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

North Korea announced it had test-fired cruise missiles over the weekend that traveled farther than any it had previously demonstrated, with the potential capacity to carry a nuclear warhead and evade detection. On Wednesday, it fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea to its east.

Hours later, South Korea announced it had successfully tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile, showing off a technology held by only half a dozen other countries and considered an important "second strike" capability in the event of a nuclear attack.

On Thursday morning, North Korean state media boasted that its ballistic missiles had been launched from a train, another novel addition to the isolated nation's growing arsenal. The "railway mobile missiles system" throws another wrench in the U.S. and South Korea's efforts to monitor and detect the nation's missiles.

 

The escalations are fomenting tensions not seen since 2017, when Kim and President Donald Trump exchanged increasingly fiery rhetoric and North Korea tested nuclear weapons as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. Analysts say the ratcheting up of military might between the Koreas raises the possibility of misunderstandings that could spiral to dangerous consequences — and further dampen the possibility of a diplomatic resolution to disarm North Korea's nuclear arsenal.

"We're in a very critical moment where things could escalate quickly, which I don't think either side intended to do," said Jenny Town, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center, who directs the center's 38 North Program focusing on North Korea analysis.

South Korea's resorting to bolstering its own defense capabilities — and North Korea continuing to showcase new and more powerful weapons — is not surprising given the stalled relations between the Koreas since talks between North Korea and the U.S. broke down in 2019, Town said.

"Given everything that South Korea did over the past three years, no progress has been made," she said. "How long are you going to stand by in the hopes things get better while North Korea is moving forward with their advanced capabilities?"

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