The tacit deal between the U.S. and North Korea is still holding: In exchange for scaled back joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises, North Korea has held off on intercontinental ballistic missile testing. U.S. President Donald Trump affirmed as much during his state visit to Tokyo this weekend, brushing off Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s concerns about North Korea’s tests of new short-range missiles, which it launched into the sea of Japan earlier this month – Pyongyang’s first ballistic missile tests in more than a year and a half. So long as the North refrains from resuming ICBM testing, the U.S. can be content to let the impasse drag out indefinitely, even if in public Washington continues to demand full denuclearization.
But the test of the North’s newest missiles, which appear curiously similar to Russian Iskanders, along with other recent developments, illustrates the reality that Pyongyang can’t as easily stand pat. It needs sanctions relief and economic aid. It’s keen to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its allies and further reduce U.S. military options. And now, with a growing capability to deposit a nuclear weapon just about anywhere in the region, it can move more aggressively to try to meet its needs – even without crossing Washington’s red line of testing missiles that can hit the U.S. mainland.
South Korea in the Crosshairs
North Korea’s primary reason for going nuclear was regime security. Pyongyang watched as Moammar Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein abandoned their nuclear programs and met inglorious deaths. It noted that when China, India and Pakistan went nuclear, the West briefly raised hell before quickly shifting to engagement.
But there are other benefits to its nuclear program. For example, there’s newfound prestige abroad and, perhaps more important for the regime of Kim Jong Un, at home. It also allows Pyongyang to act more aggressively in the region without worrying about an overreach that would trigger major blowback. The risks of going to war with a nuclear state are simply too high to respond to a provocation with enough conventional force to deter future provocations, typically forcing other regional powers to hold or at least limit their fire out of fear of escalation. This paradigm has kept a lid on India and Pakistan’s conflict over Kashmir since the late 1990s.
North Korea could put this dynamic in play with the South. Reunification of the Korean Peninsula is a geopolitical imperative for both Seoul and Pyongyang. Neither can reunify by force without significant outside help. Under President Moon Jae-in, South Korea, in an effort to stave off another U.S. war on the peninsula, align the strategic interests of the two Koreas, and lay the groundwork for a long-term reconciliation, has pursued a robust engagement agenda with the North. Pyongyang, which needs economic assistance and is keen to see the U.S. gone from the peninsula, would prefer that these happen through reconciliation rather than provocation. But, constrained primarily by the inflexibility of the U.S. position on sanctions and by other factors like his declining popularity at home, Moon’s outreach has largely stalled. And U.S.-South Korea exercises, though scaled back and redesigned to avoid simulating an invasion of the North, have continued.
Thus, one goal of North Korea’s latest missile and artillery tests is to persuade Seoul that, if forced by Washington to pick a side, Pyongyang is its best long-term bet. The particular missile tested reinforces this message in two ways. One, it is the North’s first solid-fuel short-range ballistic missile with a range covering all of South Korea, including major U.S. military bases in the southern parts of the country and key ports where U.S. forces would arrive to support an invasion. (Unlike their relatively unstable liquid fuel counterparts, solid fuel engines don’t need to be fueled up right before use, allowing for quicker launches, greater mobility, camouflaging and pre-positioning options.) Two, the Iskander can fly on a flat trajectory at an altitude of 25-30 miles (40-50 kilometers). This would potentially allow it to exploit a coverage gap in the U.S. missile defense architecture currently deployed on the peninsula; that altitude is just outside of the range of Patriot missile interceptors and just below the engagement floor of THAAD and Aegis systems. For good measure, it’s also believed to have greater maneuverability at low altitudes than most ballistic missiles, further complicating missile defense plans.
In other words, Pyongyang is trying to make the case to Seoul that preserving U.S. security guarantees is no longer worth the cost of derailing reconciliation with the North. The new missile alone won’t do the trick; South Korea can’t abandon the leverage of U.S. backing just yet, and it still needs U.S. counterstrike guarantees to remain in place. But, at a time when the White House is repeatedly threatening to pull up stakes if Seoul doesn’t pay the full cost of the U.S. presence on the peninsula (plus, per Donald Trump’s insistence, as much as a 50 percent premium), it deepens the wedge between Washington and Seoul and tilts Seoul’s long-term calculus in Pyongyang’s favor.
South Korea is certainly preparing for the day when it needs to stand on its own. Recent moves by the South, such as the launch of new military exercises aimed at accelerating the return of wartime operational control over its own forces from the U.S., should be viewed in this light.
Getting Washington’s Attention
The new missile tests were also aimed at nudging Washington away from its Hanoi summit position of refusing any sanctions relief until the North fully denuclearizes. Sanctions have never been able to bring the Kim regime to its knees. But Kim is increasingly staking his legacy on his ability to deliver economic prosperity – repeatedly pledging in public that while a nuclear program brought isolation and poverty, nuclear statehood will bring the opposite. Now, he needs to show some results. The international sanctions regime could unravel even if the U.S. declines to relent; Russia or China could block renewal of U.N. sanctions. But with these and other countries wary of getting slapped with secondary sanctions by the U.S., Pyongyang is eager to get Washington to back off as well.
In this context, that the North’s new missile appears at minimum inspired by Russian missile designs is noteworthy. There’s currently no evidence that Moscow helped the North build its new missile. North Korea has proved adept at swiping and cloning other military technologies in the past, and since Russia has exported Iskanders to other countries and used them in Syria, it’s not hard to imagine the North accessing the technology in other ways. (South Korea and Ukraine also have missile programs inspired by the Iskander.)
But it’s also not far-fetched to hypothesize that there’s indeed a fresh set of Russian fingerprints on North Korea’s new missiles. The tests occurred less than three weeks after Kim’s high-profile visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok in late April. Russia shares the North’s interest in seeing the U.S. alliance structure in Northeast Asia unravel. And for decades, Moscow has sought to retain influence in Pyongyang primarily as leverage against Washington on other more pressing issues in Central and Eastern Europe. Whether or not Moscow actually transferred missile technology to Pyongyang, the tests serve as a reminder that it could if the U.S. doesn’t play ball elsewhere – perhaps even helping Pyongyang overcome critical hurdles in its ICBM program.
This suits Pyongyang’s interests. At present, the North has yet to demonstrate that it has mastered ICBM re-entry capability – the trickiest part of long-range missile development. Its Hwasong-15 ICBMs can fly far enough to hit the U.S. mainland, but there’s no evidence they can hit their target with any degree of certainty. To keep the U.S. from stalling indefinitely on sanctions relief, Pyongyang wants to persuade Washington of its ability (with a bit of outside help) of making this last leap in missile technology. It’s attempting to make the case that the suspension of its ICBM program was a good faith move meriting reciprocal concessions and that, most important, it was a choice – one that Pyongyang could choose to reverse.
We’re doubtful that Pyongyang will push forward with ICBM testing again anytime soon, with or without Moscow’s help. There just wouldn’t be that much to gain by provoking the U.S. in such a manner, and potentially a lot to lose. At minimum, doing so would make it easier for the U.S. to sustain a broad sanctions front. But for perhaps the first time in decades, the North feels like it’s operating from a position of strength and has every interest in seeing just what nuclear statehood entitles it. Don’t expect Kim to stay quiet.