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Kim Jong Un won’t be ignored: What North Korean missile tests mean

In case you were puzzled about the recent barrage of North Korean ballistic missile tests – four sets of tests so far in January – it’s now clear. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has delivered his punch line: It’s about to get worse.

At a Jan. 20 Politburo meeting, Kim reportedly presented the stick, and a subtle hint of a carrot. Denouncing U.S. “hostile policies,” he instructed officials to “reconsider in an overall scale the trust-building measures that we took on our own initiative… and to promptly examine the issue of restarting all temporarily suspended activities.”

What does this mean? During the period of warm and fuzzy diplomacy starting in 2018, with love letters to ex-President Trump and Trump-Kim summitry, Kim imposed a moratorium on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and nuclear tests. This carried over into the Biden administration, perhaps because since January 2020, fearing COVID-19, North Korea sealed all its borders and went full porcupine — even rejecting World Health Organization offers of 6.2 million vaccines.

COVID-19 has been a dominant factor shaping developments on the Korean Peninsula. It has reinforced Pyongyang’s inward – if not paranoid – tendencies even at the expense of battering its already precarious economy. One significant consequence of this situation has been a shift toward more state control of the jangmadang, private markets, along with a tightening of Kim’s control over social and cultural life — down to censoring films, music and clothing. COVID-19 fears have almost certainly been a factor behind such steps, as well as a factor in Pyongyang’s resistance to nuclear negotiations with the U.S. and South Korea. Kim is now starting to open up a tiny crack, resuming cross-border traffic with China.

Kim suddenly resumed his testing efforts with two missile tests in September, followed by the recent salvos. Some see the tests as a provocation, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken said recently, “to get our attention.” The flip side of the moratorium has been a corresponding tacit, informal understanding since 2018 that the U.S. would tolerate short and medium range missile tests – which violate U.N. Security Council resolutions – with minor opprobrium.

This state of affairs carried over from Trump to Biden but now may have run its course. The U.S. response to the recent tests was to sanction six North Koreans involved in procuring missile technology. Nonetheless, Pyongyang cited these sanctions as a rationale for further tests due to the U.S. “hostile policy.” It is all depressingly familiar, right out of the North Korea playbook.

But the tests have multiple purposes, from shoring up Kim’s domestic legitimacy to forcing a U.S. response. First and foremost, however, as Kim outlined a year ago, in his nine-hour report at the Workers Party Congress, he intends to build a vast array of sophisticated new weapons systems, which he has been following through on. These range from ICBMs that can reach the U.S. heartland to rail-launched medium range missiles, cruise missiles, tactical missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles to multi-warhead and submarine launched missiles.

These new capabilities raise questions about Pyongyang’s intentions: Is the mission deterrence, offensive action, coercive diplomacy or even reunification by force? 

This full-spectrum nuclear arsenal appears an effort to achieve a survivable nuclear triad with its estimated 20-50 nuclear weapons, perhaps altering the military balance. In fact, North Korea’s continued cycle of tests appear to give it a new ability to evade U.S. missile defenses with cruise and hypersonic glide vehicles difficult for U.S. radars and sensors to detect.

This will require intense U.S. consultation with South Korea, and secondarily, with Japan to adapt and upgrade defenses. Some of Kim’s tactical weapons may imply not just a porcupine defense but potential offensive intent.

But the North Korea playbook includes carrots as well as sticks. Kim knows that his threat (or promise) of forthcoming ICBM tests will shake the Biden administration’s relatively complacent North Korea policy and create congressional pressure to “do something.”

After a policy review last April, the U.S. has constantly repeated offers to meet “anytime, anywhere” without preconditions to restart nuclear diplomacy, suggesting a variety of possible formulas. All have been ignored by Pyongyang.

After months of efforts by South Korean President Moon Jae-in to put forward an “end of war declaration” to replace the 1953 Armistice agreement, Kim’s action seems a definitive no. Moon, whose term ends in March, sees North-South reconciliation as his legacy, which has been thoroughly undermined by Kim. Another possible purpose for Kim’s new gambit may be to set the stage for a fresh start with Moon’s successor after March elections.

But the fact that Kim’s directive was aimed solely at the U.S. may be a subtle effort to force a U.S. response in what promises to be a year from hell for Biden’s foreign policy, on top of Russia-Ukraine, China and Iran quandaries. Kim knows that an ICBM test would create a pseudo-crisis, forcing a Biden response.

If past is prologue, along with more tests, Kim may be trying to parlay tests into U.S. concessions, such as easing UN sanctions and/or suspending U.S.-South Korea military exercises to restart nuclear diplomacy on his terms.

Kim’s goal is to be accepted as a nuclear state, like Israel or Pakistan, and treated as a normal nation. This could rouse interest in freezing their nuclear and missile programs — for a price. Pressure for action could tempt the Biden administration to explore such talks.

Over 25 years of nuclear diplomacy, North Korea has often displayed tactical brilliance in shaping the agenda. Now, Pyongyang may be doing just that.                                                                          

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and its New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council. He was a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, a member of the U.S. Department of State policy planning staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council strategic futures group from 2008 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.

Tags Antony Blinken Ballistic missile Donald Trump Kim Jong Un Missile defense North Korea Nuclear triad South Korea–United States relations United States national missile defense

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