|National Security Office chief Chung Eui-yong speaks during the National Assembly's annual audit into Cheong Wa Dae, Nov. 1, at the National Assembly in Seoul. Yonhap|
By Jung Da-min
The heads of the National Security Office (NSO) and the National Intelligence Service (NIS) have offered different assessments of North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities at their respective audits by the National Assembly.
NIS chief Suh Hoon, speaking to lawmakers at the Assembly, Monday, said the North had developed the technology to launch such missiles from mobile launchers, or transporter-erector launchers (TELs), and had conducted several tests.
Rep. Lee Eun-jae, a member of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) who attended the closed-door audit, cited Suh as saying, "North Korea loads an ICBM on a TEL, which is driven to a test site and then the missile is transferred to another launch pad and launched. This is a launch using a TEL."
Three days earlier, Chung Eui-yong, the NSO chief, downplayed the North's capabilities, telling lawmakers his agency wouldn't confirm that it was able to launch an ICBM from a TEL.
"Once the Tongchang-ri missile facility is abolished completely, I can say with confidence that the North will not be able to launch an ICBM," Chung said.
Kim You-geun, one of Chung's two deputy directors, backed him up saying the NSO believed it would be difficult for North Korea to utilize mobile missile launchers.
Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, on the other hand, agreed with Suh, saying that the North often transported long-range missiles on such launchers.
"Although there are some differences in interpreting the North's ICBM launches, I think the military's view is in line with Chung's remarks," Jeong told lawmakers during a separate meeting at the Assembly, Monday. The minister said that Chung was answering questions in his capacity as NSO chief and what he meant was that the North did not use TELs for direct launches but used other launch pads or fixtures after moving the missiles using the TELs.
|National Intelligence Service chief Suh Hoon, center, attends an annual audit of the spy agency by the National Assembly, held at the agency's headquarters in Seocho-gu, Seoul, Monday. Yonhap|
The disagreement between the NSO, NIS and defense ministry comes at a time when inter-Korean relations are in bad shape. In addition, the denuclearization talks between the United States and North Korea remain deadlocked with little sign of improvement.
President Moon Jae-in, a strong believer in an "engagement-centric" North Korean policy, seemed to downplay the significance of the North's repeated missile tests, with his top security aides telling reporters and the public the North's missile capabilities don't pose any grave threat to South Korea's national security.
|A test launch of North Korea's newly developed "super-large multiple rocket launchers" is being conducted, Oct. 31, in this photo released by the country's state-run Korean Central News Agency the following day. The Oct. 31 test marked the third test of the weapon this year, following ones in Aug. 24 and Sept. 10. KCNA-Yonhap|
The basis for this is the view at Cheong Wa Dae that the continued missile launches are mostly aimed at gaining leverage in the nuclear disarmament negotiations with the United States, and pressuring South Korea to get Washington to make concessions on its behalf.
"President Moon still believes dialogue between the Koreas and between the United States and North Korea is still alive and remains unshaken. But the mismatches between top security agencies in assessing the North's missile capabilities are raising concerns with the public. Cheong Wa Dae is well aware of that," a presidential official told The Korea Times.
In questions on the renewal of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), a military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, Chung reconfirmed the government's position that it will not renew it unless Japan withdraws trade restrictions against South Korean firms.
The GSOMIA dispute started in late August when the government announced it would not renew the pact with Japan for another year after its Nov. 22 expiration. This was in response to Japan removing South Korea from its list of countries receiving preferential trade treatment for "security reasons."
The GSOMIA dispute has become a diplomatic issue among South Korea, Japan and the United States, with Washington pressuring its two allies to restore the pact for cooperation to counter possible threats from North Korea.
A missile launch, Oct. 31, marked North Korea's 12th missile test this year after its first one in May. The weapons tested by the North include the KN-23 short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) which is similar to the Russian Iskander; what the North describes as a large-caliber multiple-launch guided rocket system; other SRBMs similar to the U.S. Army's Tactical Missile System or ATACMS; and super-large multiple rocket launchers.