North Korea's latest intermediate-range ballistic missile test will likely limit the maneuvering room of President Moon Jae-in seeking dialogue with Pyongyang, instead setting the stage for Washington to employ tougher sanctions, experts said Monday.
North Korea said that it successfully fired a new ground-to-ground missile, called the Hwasong-12, on Sunday which can carry a "large-size heavy nuclear warhead," claiming that the U.S. mainland is within its striking range.
The provocation came just four days after Moon, a liberal politician, was sworn in as South Korea's new president following the ouster of his conservative predecessor Park Geun-hye over corruption charges.
On the campaign trail, Moon pledged to seek a dual-track approach of pushing for denuclearization and dialogue with Pyongyang.
Moon urged North Korea Sunday to stop provocations for the resumption of dialogue while warning that his government will resolutely deal with them in a bid to ensure that the North would not "miscalculate" the situation.
Experts said that North Korea seemed to test Moon's willingness to improve inter-Korean ties with the latest launch coming even before his administration has yet to unveil the details of its North Korea policy.
"Tests are a way for the (North Korean) regime to set the parameters of its relations with its neighbors. This launch could be designed to see how Moon reacts," said Ken Gause, a senior analyst at U.S.-based CNA Corp.
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute, said that Moon would face challenges in improving inter-Korean relations as the U.S. is likely to further pressure Seoul to join its drive for tougher sanctions.
"As North Korea claimed that the U.S. mainland is within its striking range, I expect a tougher reaction from the U.S. and calls for further pressure and sanctions by the international community," he said.
Tensions had flared up on the Korean Peninsula in recent weeks amid speculation that Pyongyang may carry out its sixth nuclear test. The dispatch of the USS Carl Vision strike group to the region raised concerns about Washington's pre-emptive attack on Pyongyang.
The U.S. said it aims to pressure North Korea into dismantling its nuclear and missile programs through sanctions while remaining open to dialogue.
But in what could be signs of easing tension, U.S. President Donald Trump said he would be "honored" to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un if circumstances are right.
Choe Son-hui, a senior North Korean diplomat, said Saturday that Pyongyang would be willing to hold talks with Washington "under the right conditions."
"The thing is the right conditions are defined differently by Pyongyang and Washington," Gause said. "It will likely be up to Seoul to try to mediate a compromise between North Korea and the U.S. in order to move forward. A tall order for the new president."
Conservative groups here view Moon's assumption of the presidency with concerns that his engagement policy with North Korea may weaken the coordinated front between Seoul and Washington in pressuring Pyongyang.
Moon and Trump agreed Wednesday to maintain close cooperation in tackling North Korea's nuclear problems in their first phone talks, Seoul's presidential office said.
Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Dongguk University, said that the latest missile test indicated North Korea has no intention to give up its nuclear weapons even if it seeks to hold talks with the U.S.
"The U.S., South Korea and China are likely to strengthen their coordination in handling the North's nuclear threats. For the short term, Moon cannot help focusing on sanctions rather than dialogue," he said. (Yonhap)