On July 31st, North Korea launched 2 short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast. The missiles flew about 250 kilometres at an altitude of 50 kilometres before splashing into the sea. This follows tests conducted on July 25th wherein the North Koreans fired 2 missiles which flew 430 kilometres and 690 kilometres respectively, both landing in the sea between North Korea and Japan.
South Korean officials have identified these missiles as a new type of short-range ballistic missile similar to the Russian Iskander missile. Defense-analysts have identified the missiles as KN-23 solid-fuel missiles, and South Korean Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo has said that the latest technical iteration of these missiles is capable of re-manoeuvring in the final phase of their trajectory, enabling them to bypass air-defence systems. This has been the first time that South Korea has formally accused the DPRK of testing a ballistic missile system since November 2017, when the DPRK test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental United States.
The North Korean Central News Agency reported that Kim Jong-Un had supervised Wednesday’s launch of what it called a “newly developed large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system.”
The DPRK’s defence ministry also recently unveiled a new submarine which would extend the range of its missile-capability, and which South Korean officials say is equipped with 3 different missile launch-tubes.
These latest tests are widely seen as serving 2 inter-related purposes:
Firstly, to signal Pyongyang’s response to the upcoming military exercises to be conducted by the United States and South Korea. Kim Jong-un has claimed that when they met at the DMZ in June, US president Donald Trump pledged to place a moratorium on joint US-South Korean military exercises, and the DPRK’s latest tests are a proportional response to Trump’s reneging on this pledge. DPRK government officials have said that if the US and South Korea did not discontinue joint military exercises, then the DPRK would rebuff further US diplomatic approaches regarding denuclearization-negotiations, and might even resume long-range missile-testing and nuclear-tests.
Secondly, the DPRK’s latest missile-tests are devised to force the United States to come back with more realistic proposals regarding denuclearization and sanctions. When Kim and Trump met in Hanoi in February, discussions broke down when Kim demanded an end to all economic sanctions against the DPRK in exchange for dismantling its nuclear complex in Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang. Trump wanted a more comprehensive denuclearization-package. Kim has said that he would give the United States time until the end of the year to come back with “new calculations.”
The point should be underlined that, as Pyongyang has not yet abandoned its pledge to discontinue long-range missile testing and nuclear testing, these latest tests stop short of being classifiable as “provocations.” Duyeon Kim, a Korea-specialist at the Center for a New American Security, opined that “Pyongyang is avoiding provoking the U.S. to keep the dialogue door open by engaging in gray zone provocations to strengthen its missiles while protesting the upcoming U.S.-South Korea military drills.”
While these tests are in contravention of a UN Security Council resolution “forbidding” the DPRK from conducting ballistic missile-tests of any kind, they are simply gambits in a negotiating-strategy. Furthermore, they are perfectly logical and reciprocal responses to the upcoming US-South joint military exercises. In fact, they are the only effective reciprocal response which the DPRK can produce to the upcoming joint military exercises and to continuing economic sanctions.
“This type of saber rattling is not threatening, but rather is intended to get the attention of North Korea’s more powerful neighbors,” commented Daniel L. Davis, of the Defense Priorities research institute in Washington, “Kim Jong-un wants to negotiate and signal his ability to take actions the U.S. and others don’t like in an effort to speed up diplomacy....Unless Washington is willing to make such trade-offs and normalize relations, expect Kim to continue developing weapons and testing them.”
Harry Kazianis, a defence analyst with Center for the National Interest said “This new test of missiles or ‘projectiles’ by Pyongyang is a message to Washington and Seoul: stop joint exercises or we will continue to show off our own offensive military capabilities and raise tensions to a slow boil over time.”
One of the refreshing aspects of these latest developments is the absence of hysteria in the subsequent analysis. Even US National security Advisor John Bolton didn’t quite go into orbit in his interview following the July 31st tests. “You have to ask if, when, the real diplomacy is going to begin, when the working-level discussions on denuclearization will begin.”
Bolton’s rhetorical sleight of hand here is subtle, but still obvious. His usage of the phrase “working-level” was devised to very loosely suggest that terms have been agreed in principle, which clearly they have not. This phrase “working-level” was also devised to imply that the DPRK missile-tests on July 25th and July 31st were not in themselves part and parcel of a substantive process of negotiation, which clearly they are. The DPRK’s terms have not been met.
These tests also underline Kim Jong-un’s skill and steely nerve as a negotiator. He is making it clear that the DPRK will not give up its ace-cards without sufficient return. As it would have been disastrous to his negotiating-position if these tests had resulted in hysteria leading to any degree of political destabilization, his pre-test anticipation of the measured analytical responses in the media has been quite astute.
There is also the broader issue of the United States’ historical track-record of unilaterally imposing economic sanctions on quite spurious pretexts against countries whose government don’t sign on with liberal universalism, and therefore the untrustworthiness of any commitments the US government might make on sanctions. The Iranian nuclear issue is clear demonstration of this. With this in mind, can Kim really be expected to give up his ace-cards?