By Juni Kim
While North Korea has aggressively pursued its nuclear and missile programs for years, the reclusive nation under the Kim Dynasty’s third generation leader Kim Jong-un has been particularly committed to demonstrating its weapons advances. 2017 alone saw North Korea conduct three intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests that showcased their range to reach the United States, multiple missile launches over Japan, and its most powerful nuclear test yet.
2018, however, is already shaping up to be a very different year. Starting with Kim Jong-un’s New Year address where the young leader expressed his desire for a peaceful reconciliation with South Korea, North Korea has made a string of diplomatic overtures including the country’s participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and planned summits with both South Korea and the United States. Just last week Kim Jong-un met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping for his first trip abroad as North Korea’s leader, and there are rumblings of other potential world leader meetings.
Likewise, North Korea has refrained from any missile tests since its ICBM test last November. The announced summits will likely continue the pause in missile testing until at least after the talks (the inter-Korean summit is planned for April 27th with the U.S.-North Korea meeting to follow in May). Of course North Korea could pull an about face at any moment, but for now the current break is already one of the longest under Kim Jong-un’s rule.
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to definitively associate breaks in missile tests to certain political factors. Although missile tests are used as an instrument for advancing policy, pauses in missile test, even for those that last months, may be more easily explained by logistical reasons. Shea Cotton of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies noted, “North Korea tests its missiles when it’s ready to. They’ve got a program in place that probably has a schedule and a timetable for deliverables.”
Still, the longest pauses do overlap with significant events in North Korean politics, which may help illustrate the larger picture of why the breaks occur when they do. Kim’s early ruling years, when the longest breaks in testing occurred, are widely seen as a time when Kim was focused on consolidating power among North Korea’s highest ranks. During the longest break from May 2013 to February 2014, Kim Jong-un purged his influential uncle Jang Song-taek, which signaled Kim’s tightening grip. North Korea’s “Byungjin Line” policy – its simultaneous pursuit of economic and weapons development – was announced in March 2013, after the second longest pause in testing. Missile testing since the policy announcement increased significantly under Kim Jong-un.
The third longest break overlaps with an August 2015 landmine incident where two South Korean soldiers were wounded by a DMZ landmine. The fallout from the incident flared into increased tensions including exchanged artillery fire and cross-border propaganda broadcasts. The heightened stances of both Koreas made any provocation an especially risky endeavor, which may help explain the relatively long pause in missile testing during this period.
If the current break continues past the proposed Trump-Kim summit in May, it could potentially be the fourth longest gap in missile testing. Kim Jong-un did declare in his last New Year’s address that North Korea had successfully completed its nuclear program. Whether or not this is true, the statement provides the regime an easy explanation for its refrained testing. With this self-professed notion, Kim’s current diplomatic outreach could be a play to get his country’s nuclear status acknowledged internationally.
*Graphic shows current testing pause in days from 4/6/18.
Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Jen Morgan’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.