The Koreas

Handshakes and Missiles: Mixed Signals From North Korea

Pyongyang’s missile launches are negotiating tactics that shouldn’t be taken too far.

Handshakes and Missiles: Mixed Signals From North Korea
Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Since the June 30 Trump-Kim meeting at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), where the U.S. and North Korean leaders agreed to resume working level nuclear negotiations, there have been four separate missile launches by North Korea. Meanwhile North Korea’s foreign minister did not participate in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) for the first time in 10 years.

How should we interpret these moves by North Korea, which appear to be contradictory at first glance – their leader agreeing to resume negotiations but soon after conducting four missile launches in two weeks? Are the North Koreans sincere about nuclear negotiations, with these launches simply being part of their negotiating posturing?

On July 25, North Korea conducted its first missile launch after the Trump-Kim meeting at the DMZ. It called the missile a “new-type tactical guided weapon.” Within the next eight days, Pyongyang conducted two similar tests on July 31 and August 2, which it called a test of a “newly developed large caliber multiple launch guided rocket system” (MLRS). On August 6, North Korea again fired “new-type tactical guided missiles.” These launches could also be interpreted as North Korea’s protests against U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, which started on August 5.

Based on the existing North Korean terminology, they had not tested any ballistic missiles. However, a different interpretation was given by the South Korean government, which on all four occasions classified the launches as “short range ballistic missiles” (SRBMs). By categorizing the launches as SRBMs, those launches would have, in South Korea’s eyes, violated UN Security Council Resolutions, which prohibit North Korea from any ballistic missile launches.

Regardless of the terminology used, these launches have not prompted the same level of criticism from the United States and South Korea as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch would have. Indeed, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted on 2 August that the launches “are not a violation of our signed Singapore agreement, nor was there discussion of short range missiles when we shook hands.” Nonetheless, these launches are, in our view, not conducive to efforts to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and they should be strongly discouraged as the various parties work toward achieving the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

It is also noteworthy that North Korea made its first two recent launches just days before this year’s ARF in Bangkok, while its third recent launch was actually done on the morning of ARF itself. ARF is one of the few multilateral forums in which North Korea is a full member, and it was anticipated that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho would meet on the sidelines to resume the stalled nuclear negotiations. However, about a week before ARF, North Korea informed the host, Thailand, that Ri would not be attending. This was the first time in 10 years that North Korea was not represented by its foreign minister at ARF. Instead, North Korea sent its ambassador to Thailand, a significant downgrade in its level of representation.

It is clear from these recent events that North Korea is not yet ready to resume working level negotiations, and it wanted to avoid a situation where its foreign minister might be caught in a difficult position at ARF, in front of all the other foreign ministers from the region, especially after its recent launches. However, it is our assessment that this is all part of North Korea’s tried and tested negotiating tactics – North Korea is just trying to strengthen its negotiating position before talks resume. We are of the view that North Korea will re-engage in working level nuclear negotiations soon, especially after such a promise had been given by Chairman Kim Jong Un himself to Trump at the DMZ.

Our view is that North Korea’s recent launches should be viewed as signals rather than as provocations. A North Korean rocket/missile landing in its own littoral waters will not panic the region, whereas a longer range missile that flies over or lands in Japanese waters most certainly would. Thus far, these short range launches have not prompted fierce reactions from the United States and South Korea, which remain keen to resume talks with Pyongyang.

However, if North Korea decides to utilize its “trump card” by next firing a medium-range ballistic missile, in a calculated attempt to push the United States to adopt a more favorable negotiation stance, this would escalate matters significantly. While a medium-ranged missile would still fall short of Pyongyang’s self-declared moratorium on firing ICBMs, it will likely receive even stronger criticism from both the United States and South Korea. That said, North Korea would likely still retain strategic maneuvering capability to steer the negotiations in the direction that it desires and at a timing of its choice.

A medium-range ballistic missile launch would, however, present a conundrum for both Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, as both men have been able to claim credit thus far for North Korea’s moratorium on longer ranged missiles. Such a launch would put both Washington and Seoul in tight spots, especially since both governments would face stronger criticism from their domestic audiences for not being able to restrain North Korea. If that happens, Trump and Moon may not be able to overlook North Korea’s actions anymore due to severe backlash from their lawmakers and voters. The United States and South Korea would then have to thread an extremely fine line, despite their repeated desire to give Kim every available opportunity to continue implementing his denuclearization pledge.

While Kim wants to inject some urgency into Trump’s negotiating calculus before the end of this year – which is the former’s deadline for the U.S. to change its approach to the nuclear negotiations – and induce strategic caution in Seoul, the North Korean leader needs to restrain himself from further escalating the situation with launches of longer ranged missiles. Any such moves could easily herald a return to the “fire and fury” pre-summitry days of 2017 if the slightest miscalculation or mistake takes place. If that happens, it will be a step too far in the brinksmanship game being played by North Korea – it will be in no one’s interests, not even Pyongyang’s.

Shawn Ho is an Associate Research Fellow with the Regional Security Architecture Program, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

Dr. Nah Liang Tuang is a Research Fellow with the Military Studies Program at RSIS, NTU, Singapore.