What Do North Korea’s Latest Missile Launches Mean?

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What Do North Korea’s Latest Missile Launches Mean?

Sometimes a missile test is just a missile test, without any grand diplomatic messaging.

What Do North Korea’s Latest Missile Launches Mean?

This Sept. 15, 2021 file photo provided by the North Korean government shows a missile test firing launched from a train at an undisclosed location of North Korea. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified.

Credit: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

Since its unusual military parade on September 9, which did not put on display any new weapons systems, North Korea has tested both cruise and ballistic missiles. Experts have offered a variety of theories to explain the move. Some analysts argued that the North has decided to further strengthen its self-defense capabilities to counter the U.S. effectively, indicating that renewed dialogue between the United States and North Korea is unlikely to happen in the near future. Others make the opposite argument, predicting that bilateral or multilateral negotiations on denuclearization will take place soon, considering the diplomatic efforts made by neighboring countries last week in Tokyo and Seoul.

In order to understand the motivation of the North’s missile launches, however, we only need to know one thing: Pyongyang is intent on developing its missile program to enhance national security. Last week’s missile launches have no secret motivation underneath the surface. They are exactly what they appear to be: weapons tests designed to further the North’s military capabilities.

Some have expressed concerns over the frequency of the North’s missile launches, but it was predictable based on Kim’s previous comments. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced his intention to develop more weapons and increase the country’s military capabilities vis-à-vis the U.S. and South Korea at the Workers’ Party Eighth Congress in January.

As the 1950-1953 Korean War is still technically underway – the combatant countries have not declared the end of the war yet, only a truce – it is natural for the North and the South to continue to develop more advanced weapons. The two Koreas have kicked off their own arms race by introducing new and advanced weapons, especially after the U.S. lifted missile restrictions on South Korea. Meanwhile, the diplomatic options for tackling North Korea’s growing nuclear power are narrowing.

It is believed that, at the ill-fated summit in Hanoi, Kim demanded U.S. President Donald Trump publicly recognize North Korea as a nuclear state. This is a non-starter for Washington, as the U.S. has sought “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” on the Korean Peninsula under a series of administrations.

Since the Hanoi summit in 2019, Pyongyang has been crystal clear that it will never come back to the negotiating table unless Washington removes its so-called “hostile policies” first, which broadly refer to the devastating economic sanctions and the U.S. military presence on South Korean soil. That said North Korea has always left room for potential negotiations by avoiding crossing the U.S. “red lines” of intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM) or nuclear tests.

“I don’t think that Pyongyang gives up diplomatic options because it needs the improvement of the relationship with the U.S. for both its short-term and long-term regime survival and national development,” said Ku Yang-mo, associate professor of political science at Norwich University, in an interview with The Diplomat.

True, the long-range cruise missiles and train-launched ballistic missiles that were tested in the past 10 days could pose a serious threat to the security of the U.S. and neighboring countries. However, it is important that North Korea has refrained from the ultimate provocations – ICBM or nuclear tests – even though Kim said he would no longer be bound by his country’s self-imposed moratorium on such tests in the wake of the failed Hanoi summit.

The former Obama and Trump administrations took different approaches toward North Korea but there were no significant changes in the main demand: the total denuclearization of the North. But in practice, Washington has never ranked the denuclearization of North Korea as its top priority. The Obama administration’s “strategic patience” approach, for example, effectively allowed the North to keep developing its nuclear and missile programs under the economic aegis of China and Russia.

The Trump administration’s “top-down” approach, by contrast, was an audacious move to directly tackle the denuclearization of the North. Before Donald Trump, no U.S. president had ever considered sitting down with the North Korean leader to discuss the issue. However, Trump’s approach was ill-suited to a substantive and irreversible outcome, as no agreements or agendas were discussed by working-level officials between the two countries before the summit was held.

Since U.S. President Joe Biden took office in January, North Korea has not sought to renew dialogue with the United States. The country tested short-range ballistic missiles in March, but there were no serious countermeasures taken by the United States at the time. Since then, the country has consistently tested more missiles, but these tests were considered just “business as usual” by Washington and Seoul.

At the moment, Washington takes the rise of China in the region more seriously than the North’s longstanding nuclear threat. However, the United States will ultimately need to cooperate with China to address the North’s growing nuclear capabilities.

“For China, it would be good to have North Korea to agree to denuclearization, even if it is unlikely this will happen,” said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, professor of international relations at King’s College London, in an interview with The Diplomat. “It would defuse tensions in one of China’s borders, which Beijing would welcome.”

Pardo also said that China would need to support denuclearization talks out of self-interest to prevent unpleasant outcomes – more tensions in the region with more reasons and motivation to build up the South’s military and strengthen the South Korea-U.S. alliance.

North Korea will never take steps toward denuclearization first. In the same context, the United States will not lift economic sanctions first to entice the North to dismantle its nuclear sites and give up its nuclear weapons. There will never be a perfect tit-for-tat approach that leads to the full denuclearization of North Korea. But there is one way that both countries can move forward from their stalled talks and outdated political games: a long-term, phased denuclearization process overseen by multilateral cooperation.

If the North’s missile tests are “business as usual,” there is no reason to hesitate to initiate such cooperation. Doing so could prevent the Korean Peninsula from becoming the next arena of the Cold War. Time is on North Korea’s side if the U.S. keeps hesitating to take bold steps toward a realistic denuclearization process on the Korean Peninsula.