Of the approximately 70 missiles tested by Pyongyang this year, Chairman Kim Jong Un celebrated the November 18 test of the Hwasong 17 intercontinental ballistic missile as the “completion of the world’s strongest strategic weapon.” In remarks carried by the Rodong Sinmun on November 27, he also said that the test underlined “our daily-growing military supremacy and powerfully demonstrated to the whole world the great might of our nuclear war deterrent.” Experts say that this year’s flurry of provocations raise questions about how South Korea and the U.S. can work to defend against North Korea’s growing military capabilities.
As indicated by Chairman Kim’s comments, advancing North Korea’s military is an important reason for this year’s missile provocations. “Military improvement is always the foundation for testing,” said Col. David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “You have to test to advance your capabilities.” In the case of the Hwasong 17, which is believed to carry three or four warheads, the aforementioned successful launch also demonstrates Pyongyang’s ability to domestically manufacture the missile’s launch unit. Chairman Kim is “trying to create the conditions where there’s weakness in the alliance, so that ultimately the alliance splits, and he can dominate South Korea,” said Col. Maxwell.
The provocations also demonstrate how North Korea has transformed the strategic role of its military capabilities. Jenny Town, director of the 38 North Program at the Stimson Center, says that historically, Pyongyang has framed its military activities as being negotiable for the end of the American and South Korean hostile policy against it. “In the most recent statements, that conditionality has been dropped,” she said. “Those statements are much more forward and much more direct about simply that the nuclear program is non-negotiable.” Publishing pictures of Chairman Kim and his daughter attending the November 18 test is more evidence of how inflexible North Korea has become. “That just really reiterates this notion that they see this as a long-term investment, and that this isn’t something they’re trying to negotiate away anytime soon,” said Director Town.
North Korea’s provocations are not limited to just missile tests. On November 02, the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said the North fired a series of surface to air missiles and short range ballistic missiles, one of which crossed the unofficial maritime border between the Koreas, and triggered an air raid alarm on Ulleung Island. In response, South Korea dispatched F-15K and KF-16 fighters that launched three air-to-surface missiles that landed north of the Northern Limit Line. Two days later, Reuters reported South Korea scrambled 80 planes, including F-35A stealth fighters, in response to 180 North Korean planes detected in north of the Military Demarcation Line. These actions all took place against the backdrop of the U.S.-ROK Vigilant Storm military exercises, which Pyongyang denounced. Experts say that as the U.S. and South Korea maintain their close cooperation, the possibility of future provocations remains likely. “North Korea’s diversifying suite of missile technologies, and brimming tensions between Pyongyang and Seoul, would make it more conducive for Kim to conduct provocations against Seoul,” said Soo Kim, a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation. She added that in addition to another nuclear test, “a conventional military provocation targeting South Korea would be a highly attractive option for Pyongyang as it seeks to enhance its nuclear status.”
These continued provocations raise questions about the future of the Yoon administration’s “audacious initiative” towards North Korea. Since the collapse of the Hanoi Summit in 2019, North Korea has retreated from its previous openness to dialogue with South Korea and the U.S. “That willingness to negotiate about its nuclear weapons program – any part of it – right now is over.,” said Director Town. “Whether or not we can get back to that is a big question, especially when the region is really engaged in an arms race.” Given this environment, “I feel like we need to update the baseline…of what we actually expect from North Korea,” said Minseon Ku, a PhD candidate at The Ohio State University. She says the American and South Korean resistance to sanctions relief should be reevaluated. “The ball is in South Korea and the U.S.’ court,” said Ms. Ku. “That means having to compromise on a lot of things, which the U.S. has been unwilling to do, and some of the conservatives in South Korea as well.”
Other experts are skeptical of changing course on maintaining the current trajectory of the allied position on North Korea. “When some advocate that we should offer yet more concessions, despite the failure of all previous concessions to alter North Korean behavior, that leads to advocacy for actions which I don’t think are in the best interest of the U.S. and South Korea,” said Mr. Klingner. He noted that the previous Moon administration repeatedly tried to entice North Korea in diplomacy with economic and diplomatic offers, with little to show for it. While the scale and scope of North Koreans have risen in recent months, Col. Maxwell, says Chairman Kim remains focused on the same objectives as his father and grandfather before him. These are sanctions relief, strengthened military capabilities, and finally unification of the Korean Peninsula under the Pyongyang regime. “Although everybody is rightly concerned about all these missile tests, and these provocations that are taking place,” said Col. Maxwell, “what we need to remember is, we are deterring war; we are deterring nuclear attack.”
Despite these differences of opinion, there is one recalibration that could be taken in North Korea policy. Given North Korean obstinacy on its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, Director Town says the U.S. and South Korea should be more precise in what topics they want to discuss. “Saying that we want to meet anytime, anywhere is meaningless,” she said. “If we want to talk about tension reduction, [then] we need to be proposing talks about tension reduction.” Mr. Klingner says the desire to avoid inadvertent military mistakes encouraged tension reduction talks with the Soviet Union, focusing on transparency through limits on the scope of military exercises. “If we had dialogue to discuss tension reduction measures…that would be good to reduce the risk of inadvertent escalation or miscalculation,” he said. “But with North Korea refusing dialogue, that’s difficult.”
Experts say the U.S. and South Korea should remain levelheaded in the face of future provocations from North Korea. Given the long-term nature of the threat by Pyongyang, Ms. Kim says the alliance should focus its energies on broader goals. “To create challenges for Kim’s weapons pursuits and strategic goals, Seoul may want to seek a similarly longer-term approach,” she said. “This may entail taking a step back from the more reactive approaches, and focusing more on the enduring aspects of its interaction with the North Korea.” Ms. Ku warns that even if North Korea takes more inflammatory actions, the alliance should resist the temptation to escalate the situation. “The problem with escalation is that it can always go wrong,” she said. “There is a non-zero chance that something could go very wrong.”
Terrence Matsuo is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Uri Tour’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.