Dissecting North Korea’s Missile Tests

by Mel Gurtov

North Korea is carrying out one missile test after another lately, at the same time indicating (or is it?) interest in talks with South Korea about reducing tensions. 

Late last month North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles from railways over the Sea of Japan, violating UN prohibitions and raising alarm bells in nearby countries. It followed up with tests of long-range cruise missiles, a hypersonic missile, and a new anti-aircraft missile. 

Do these tests amount to a higher level of threat from North Korea, or to a show of strength that might be preliminary to entering negotiations? 

Weapons Testing

Weapons specialists seem to dominate the discussion of North Korea these days, and they are inclined to accent North Korean capabilities rather than examine their intentions. 

Certainly, North Korea has invested heavily in missiles, carrying out more than 150 tests since 1984, roughly 80 percent of them since Kim Jong-un succeeded his father. 

From the perspective of the weapons folks, some of the latest tests show that North Korea is continuing work on nuclear weapon delivery systems that could serve either as an attack force or as a deterrent against US attacks. Back in January, the North Koreans paraded its first submarine-launched missile, which some experts interpreted as showing progress toward having a solid-fuel long-range missile, armed with a nuclear weapon, that would be difficult to attack before launch and would be able to reach the US. 

Before jumping to the conclusion that all these tests signal North Korea’s aggressive intentions, we should consider that on the same day as their latest tests, South Korea unveiled its own, more advanced missile capabilities. As reported in the New York Times, South Korea announced:

it had successfully developed a supersonic cruise missile and a long-range air-to-land missile to be mounted on the KF-21, a South Korean supersonic fighter jet, and that it had developed a ballistic missile powerful enough to penetrate North Korea’s underground wartime bunkers. South Korea doesn’t have a nuclear weapon program, though it certainly could have one if not for the US opposition.

Threat of South Korea/US

Still, the South Korean tests, coming after the annual joint military exercises with the US in August, should lead US strategists to at least consider the possibility that Kim Jong-un wants two things: a reliable deterrent to US-South Korean attack, and renewal of talks on the nuclear issue that might lead to another North Korean moratorium on missile tests. 

Kim and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in have been exchanging letters for months in an effort to move forward on talks, and some progress has been achieved. Their hotline was restored in July after a year’s absence, and Moon’s proposal at the United Nations for a joint declaration ending the Korean War was greeted favorably in Pyongyang. 

Most recently, Kim’s influential sister, Kim Yo-jung, said that if South Korea shows “fairness and mutual respect”—referring to the “double standard” of criticizing the North’s missile tests while the South is carrying out its own weapons tests—a North-South Korea summit is possible.

China Messaging

It also happens, and probably not accidentally, that China’s foreign minister Wang Yi was in Seoul when the North Korean tests took place. What message might Kim have sent China with the timing of the missile tests? 

My guess is that China is being prodded to be more supportive of the North, by increasing trade and economic aid at a time when the pandemic probably (we can’t be sure since the country is literally closed down) has caused great disruption. 

North Korea might also hope that China will urge South Korea and the US to pay attention to North Korea’s security concerns. At a time of deteriorating US-China relations, however, that appeal is almost certain to fall on deaf ears in Washington.

The Biden administration has on the table a proposal to Pyongyang for nuclear talks “without preconditions.” It has tried to entice Kim by not imposing new sanctions or making threats. 

But what it has failed to do—just as previous US administrations have failed to do—is offer sanctions relief and other incentives at a time when North Korea’s economy and probably its health care system are in serious trouble. 

While the North Koreans still support “commitment for commitment, action for action”—the principle adopted by all six parties (including Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan) to a September 2005 agreement—the US has held back. 

Look Beyond Weaponry

US public opinion generally favors inducements to North Korea in return for progress on denuclearization, but Biden’s team doesn’t seem to have North Korea high on its priorities list. 

Nobody ever said that dealing with North Korea is easy. It is not the “hermit kingdom,” but it is one of the world’s most closed societies. 

Regardless, North Korea deserves attention, not just because of its nuclear weapons, but just as much because of its multiple human security problems—hunger, basic rights, and a pandemic of unknown dimensions being especially prominent now. 

In short, the US should be looking beyond missiles to see what actually motivates North Korea’s behavior. 

To my mind, Kim Jong-un isn’t looking for a fight; he’s looking for reassurances about the security of his regime and compensation for putting a lid on North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities, perhaps through another moratorium on missile tests. 

If I’m right that those are his aims, they call for a diplomatic rather than a military response, or no response at all.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest

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