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The Peninsula

Missile Testing – What is North Korea Signaling and to Whom?

Published July 25, 2019
Author: Mark Tokola
Category: North Korea

By Mark Tokola

On Thursday, July 25, North Korea launched two, (reportedly) short-range, missiles into the sea west of Japanese waters. News reports say that they traveled to distances of 430 and 690 kilometers, and flew low, no higher than 50 kilometers in altitude. Some analysts believe that the projectiles were part of North Korea’s newly-developed KN-23 arsenal, a short-range ballistic missile that resembles Russian-designed Iskander system. The weapon was also tested in May ahead of President Trump and Kim Jong-un’s meeting at the Demilitarized Zone on June 30.

Although these missiles do not have the same range as the ICBMs that North Korea tested in 2017, the KN-23 is sophisticated. The KN-23 reportedly can change direction and its low trajectory can help evade missile defense systems.  It apparently is designed to strike with accuracy. They may not threaten the U.S. homeland, but they certainly threaten South Korea and Japan.

What is North Korea signaling with this test, if anything?* In retrospect, North Korean missile testing in 2017 seemed to have adhered more to a weapons development and engineering timetable than to any diplomatic maneuvering or special anniversaries. They tested when they were ready to test. North Korea’s stepped-up testing schedule enabled Kim Jong-un to announce in his 2018 New Year’s speech that the program had been completed.

However, diplomacy has come to the fore in 2018 and 2019 and it seems more probable that North Korea’s May 9 and July 25 missile tests were intended to message something to someone. It also may not be coincidental that these missile test came just days after photographs were released of Kim Jong-un standing next to a new North Korean submarine under construction. It is just not clear what the message is, or to whom it is directed.

American commentators tend to assume that the North Korean missile tests were a message to the United States, perhaps to urge a resumption of negotiations or to increase North Korean leverage for the talks to come. Conversely, it could be argued that the missile tests are intended to message the opposite, that North Korea does not mind if its behavior leads to a delayed resumption of talks. They may want to show that sanctions are not having that much effect and time is on their side.

There are several possible interpretations of the message. Might it be directed towards South Korea rather than towards the United States? “The U.S. dismisses short-range missiles as unimportant but they can hit you. You should deal with us.” Or the message may be meant for Japan. “Our missiles tests are aimed in your direction for a reason. Ease up on your hardline policies towards us, or else.” Or maybe China? “You want stability in Northeast Asia? Then get the U.S. to make a serious offer to ease sanctions.” Kim Jong-un’s missile test messaging might even be directed towards his hardline domestic constituency. “You can stop worrying about diplomacy leading to North Korean weakness.  Support me.  We’re developing new and deadly North Korean weapons.” Or it could be some combination of the above.

There is no way to be sure what North Korea is signaling. Pyongyang may be frustrated that we are not interpreting their signals correctly and are not responding to them as they would wish. What the United States can do is to interpret the possible signals in ways that advance U.S. and South Korean interests.  If we want talks to resume, we should not interpret the missile tests in ways that would derail them. Whatever the intended message is, U.S. and South Korea policymakers should see the short-range missile tests and think: “Note to self: North Korean nuclear weapons and long-range missiles are not the only threats North Korea poses.”

What does North Korea mean by the tests?  When movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn was asked about messages conveyed in movies, he reportedly said: “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”  It would be helpful if North Korea would be more explicit about its wants and what it is offering.

 

*The day after this was posted, Kim Jong-un made a public statement that the missile test was meant as a warning to South Korea to stop joint military exercises with the U.S. and to stop modernizing its military forces.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Picture from Korea Central News Agency

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