North Korea held seven rounds of missile tests in January 2022, the most ever in a single month and more than its total number of missile tests for all of 2021. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken attributed the spate of tests to Pyongyang “trying to get attention.” Blinken’s assessment is an over-simplification; the Kim regime tests for technical reasons as well as for political signaling.
Superficially, North Korea appears relevant again. In fact, however, it will be more difficult than in the past for Pyongyang to turn the renewed attention into leverage.
What North Korean leader Kim Jong Un most immediately wants from Washington are sanctions relief and recognition as a nuclear weapons state. North Korea also has a severe energy shortage, which threatens its economic development.
But continued missile testing by North Korea does not compel Seoul, Tokyo, or Washington to seek the negotiations Pyongyang could use to address its needs.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has already been inclined toward accommodating North Korea since the beginning of his term nearly five years ago. His basic stance is not affected by spikes in inter-Korean tensions or by missile tests in particular. Instead, Moon’s latitude is limited by support (or lack thereof) from the U.S. government.
For its part, Washington is content with a policy of neglecting North Korea. In March 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden shrugged off the first North Korean missile tests of his presidency as “business as usual.”
His administration condemned the January tests and the expected North Korean return to intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing, but restated its previous policy of thinly-disguised aloofness: being willing to talk whenever the North Koreans are willing to discuss denuclearization.
With several very large domestic problems to tackle and other foreign policy issues such as Russia and China taking priority, Biden is understandably putting his effort toward areas other than trying to win a Nobel Prize for bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula. In a survey published by the Pew Research Center on February 16, a compilation of the top 18 public policy concerns of Americans barely touched on foreign affairs and did not mention North Korea. Moreover, Biden surely realizes a serious diplomatic overture to Pyongyang would open him to accusations of naiveté or appeasement from his political enemies.
The January missile tests are consistent with the Kim regime’s stated aspirations. Over a year ago, Kim vowed to “upgrade” his strategic arsenal and add “new nuclear capabilities.” He specifically mentioned submarine-launched ballistic missiles, hypersonic glide vehicles, improved accuracy, shifting from liquid to solid fuel for missiles (which greatly shortens launch preparation time), tactical nuclear weapons, and building the world’s largest nuclear and conventional warheads for his missiles. The most recent tests included short and medium-range ballistic missiles, a cruise missile, and a maneuverable re-entry vehicle.
The dreaded return to North Korean long-range missile testing, in hiatus since 2017, is overdue. Kim announced in December 2019 that his self-imposed moratorium on long-range ballistic missile tests was over. Kim also committed in January 2021 to launching a “military reconnaissance satellite.” A space launch uses what is essentially an ICBM booster rocket.
The continued delay suggests that Kim may not be anxious to expend one of his last bits of leverage, hoping that the Americans will plead for negotiations in order to prevent another ICBM test. It is also possible North Korean technicians are not yet confident the test would be successful. A failed test would raise new doubts among foreigners about the viability of North Korean delivery systems, which are not yet fully proven.
To be sure, Pyongyang making progress in its missile programs is unwelcome from the standpoint of the United States, South Korea, and Japan. Nevertheless, these advances don’t demand a response from North Korea’s potential adversaries because there is minimal impact on the regional strategic balance.
An improved North Korean arsenal has a better chance of defeating enemy anti-missile defense systems and is more survivable against attempted pre-emptive strikes. This helps compensate for North Korea’s overall military weakness vis-à-vis South Korea and the United States, which Pyongyang fears might attempt to overthrow the regime and unify the Peninsula under Seoul’s rule. More capable missiles may therefore increase Kim’s sense of protection from an attempted South Korean-U.S. invasion.
This, however, is no loss of strategic maneuverability for Seoul and Washington, which have no desire to invade North Korea and would probably only do so to finish a war started by Pyongyang. Yet no amount of strengthening its arsenal, including the ability to evade missile defenses, would ever allow North Korea to negate the U.S. capability to massively retaliate. A single Ohio-class missile submarine, of which the US Navy has 14, can deliver enough nuclear warheads to destroy all of North Korea’s major cities.
Thus, even large numbers of the new missiles North Korea is testing would not allow Pyongyang to win a war against the United States or one of its allies covered by the nuclear umbrella.
Improved missiles reinforce North Korea’s deterrence against the U.S. or South Korea launching a discretionary war of regime change, but they do not give Pyongyang a first-strike capability. In short, the missile upgrades matter little, so they confer little leverage.
The North Korean government seems to have concluded that its accustomed policy of forcing its way into the conference room with Seoul and Washington has run its course. Premeditated lethal provocation incidents have nearly disappeared since 2010, the year Seoul warned that it would thereafter respond with military retaliation against any violent North Korean attacks. This quiescence has reduced the urgency of talking to Pyongyang.
Instead, Kim says he wants recognition of North Korea as a “responsible” nuclear weapons state. While Pyongyang’s aspiration to behave more internationally respectably is a positive development, this by itself is not enough to make Washington prioritize new negotiations.
What about the threat of additional nuclear tests? The first few explosions had low yields. There was a strong incentive to talk the North Koreans out of more tests before they learned how to make more destructive bombs. But North Korea’s sixth explosion in 2017 might have been a hydrogen bomb. If the North can already make hydrogen bombs, the marginal utility to Seoul and Washington of stopping future tests is greatly decreased, and the urgency of negotiations is accordingly diminished. Furthermore, the U.S. and South Korean governments know they can leave this problem to Beijing, which opposes further North Korean nuclear tests out of fear that radioactive contamination might spread to China.
Despite recently making itself a de facto nuclear weapons state that is openly improving its delivery systems and presumably enlarging its stockpile of bombs, North Korea is largely irrelevant again – small and economically weak, all but disconnected from the global economy, deterred, and showing no interest in offering what Washington wants, which is denuclearization.