On Saturday morning, North Korea took the bold step of announcing, after a meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s Central Committee, that it would stop testing intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The commitment was delivered in a statement released by the Korean Central News Agency and attribute to Kim Jong-un; it was part of a longer list of commitments that included the dismantlement of the country’s nuclear test site at Punggye-ri in a “transparent” way. I’ve offered broader analysis of this declaration in separate articles for the Daily Beast, the BBC, and the Atlantic (co-authored with Adam Mount). Here, I wanted to focus on the logic of an ICBM test pause for North Korea — and the possible tactical utility of a voluntary moratorium.
To start, this is far from North Korea’s first self-imposed and self-enforced missile testing moratorium. In 1999, following its 1998 launch of the Taepodong-1 satellite launch vehicle over Japan, North Korea submitted to a U.S.-negotiated agreement to suspend missile tests in exchange for trade sanctions relief. North Korea chose to comply with the agreement until it didn’t; the agreement was unverified and enforced only by Pyongyang’s desire to avoid the reimposition of sanctions.
In 2006 — incidentally, on July 4, the same day North Korea launched the Hwasong-14, its first-ever flight-tested intercontinental-range ballistic missile last year — the agreement and the self-enforced moratorium came crashing down. Days earlier, in late June, North Korea had announced that it wouldn’t be bound by the moratorium any longer. (A lot happened between 1999 and 2006, including the collapse of the 1994 Agreed Framework, leading North Korea to recalculate its interests.)
The July launches included six ballistic missiles — four Nodong medium-range ballistic missiles and two Scud-Cs — and the Unha satellite launch vehicle. The ballistic missiles were all launched from Kittaeryong, a new site for North Korean tactical missile launches that had yet to see use in testing at the time. The 2006 episode suggests that any unilateral test-freeze offer from North Korea should be taken with a grain of salt.
Second, even if North Korea abides by its decision to not test ICBMs for several years, there are a range of activities that it can continue to undertake that have serious consequences for the threat posed by its strategic nuclear forces. For instance, nothing about Pyongyang’s test freeze decision suggests that the production of new ICBM launchers and airframes will cease. At his 2018 New Year’s Day address, Kim Jong-un said that North Korea’s “nuclear weapons research sector and the rocket industry should mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.” That directive has not been abrogated or superceded by Saturday morning’s declaration. North Korea can build out its strategic forces without further testing ICBMs over a period of years.
By all indications, North Korea’s primary limitation with regard to its ICBM force continues to be the availability of launchers. Based on open-source imagery, we have no evidence that North Korea has more than six ICBM-ready transporter-erector-launcher vehicles. At the latest military parade, in February, four of these launchers, which began their lives as Chinese heavy industrial logging trucks, were shown to have been converted for use with the Hwasong-15 ICBM, North Korea’s most powerful and longest-range missile.
There are suggestions, too, that two remaining launchers are configured for the shorter-range and less powerful Hwasong-14 ICBM. Even as Kim Jong-un celebrated the “completion” of his nuclear deterrent at his New Year’s Address, there’s a very good chance that he won’t be satisfied with the survivability and redundancy offered by a mere six ICBM launchers.
Similarly, while little is known about how North Korea has implemented nuclear command and control (NC2) systems, it’s more likely than not that Kim could benefit from time to refine this component of his nuclear forces as well. As I explored in an article last year with Vipin Narang, NC2 is one of the areas where North Korea may sense acute vulnerabilities, which could prompt it to dangerously devolve nuclear use authority in a crisis with South Korea and the United States. If Kim seeks his own survival, he will be motivated to ensure that he can retain highly assertive control of North Korea’s nuclear forces, ensuring that an unauthorized launch or a launch based on false information is unlikely. (Any use of nuclear weapons by North Korea, after all, would precipitate the end of his regime.)
Ultimately, what Kim needs to flesh out his nuclear forces horizontally is time. While the summit in late-May or June with U.S. President Donald Trump matters for propaganda reasons, Kim needs the summit to succeed. To do so, he needs to ensure that a) Trump shows up, and b) that Trump is ready to enter a prolonged diplomatic process on the assumption that Kim is a good faith interlocutor.
Serving up an ICBM test-ban before a summit goes a long way toward accomplishing both of those objectives. The Trump-Kim summit now seems like a probable event and Kim is likely to be open to formalizing an agreement that includes, among other provisions, a self-enforced ban on ICBM flight tests. The implementation of other provisions in any U.S.-North Korea agreement in 2018, including a verification of the dismantling of the Punggye-ri test site, is likely to take time — time that Kim can put toward all sorts of missile and warhead production activities.
Even though the ICBM threat from North Korea is credible today, Pyongyang will likely still want to test its Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 missiles on minimum energy trajectories at some point before declaring them operational and deployed. Given the risks of moving forward with a test like that, which, in late 2017 at least, could have even sparked U.S. military action, Kim has likely calculated that it would be wise to build out his nuclear forces horizontally and firm up North Korea’s NC2. It’s unclear how long North Korea might adhere to a self-imposed moratorium at this point, but the gesture shouldn’t be seen as a sign that Kim is turning toward giving up his nuclear-armed ICBMs, which continue to be the ultimate guarantee of his regime’s survival.