By Troy Stangarone
To test or not to test Trump? For North Korea the question has been more one of when and how to test rather than if to test President Donald Trump. Having largely refrained from taking provocative actions since the U.S. election, apart from Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Day declaration that North Korea was in the final stages of preparing for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test, North Korea ended that restraint with the testing of a medium range missile on February 12. So, why has Pyongyang chosen to conduct a missile test now?
There had been good reasons not to test the Trump administration, specifically to refrain from an ICBM test or anything highly provocative that would have required a significant response from the Trump administration. Trump was an unconventional candidate and during the transition had taken steps, such as receiving a congratulatory call from the president of Taiwan; that indicated he would continue in his unconventional manner as president. Folded into his seeming willingness to completely reconsider relations with longtime U.S. allies and partners, it was in North Korea’s interest to let other nations test President Trump and learn from their experience.
Additionally, with South Korea undergoing a political crisis with the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye and the opposition in a strong political position, taking steps that might shift the political balance in South Korea were not in Pyongyang’s interest either.
However, more recent events may have begun to shift North Korea’s thinking towards a smaller test of the Trump administration than conducting an ICBM launch, which might have precipitated an unexpected response. By testing an intermediate range missile, Pyongyang could potentially mute any response from the Trump administration while gaining valuable data on a class of missiles that North Korea had not yet perfected, specifically a solid fuel medium range missile launched from a mobile platform which North Korea is calling the Pukguksong-2. The Pukguksong-2 is believed to be a version of the submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) that Pyongyang tested last year. In essence, giving North Korea the ability to launch from anywhere at any time as they have claimed.
The question again, is why conduct this test now? If North Korea believed that the testing of a missile of a lesser range than an ICBM would not draw a significant response, there are five factors that likely made North Korea conclude that now would be an optimal time to test a medium range missile:
President Trump is Distracted Domestically
President Trump began office with the lowest approval rating of an incoming U.S. president and his support has continued to fall. In just three short weeks in office he has seen significant protests against his policies and most recently has lost court decisions on his immigration policy. While all administrations face periods of domestic upheaval, coming at the beginning of President Trump’s term could have lead North Korea to conclude that the administration was distracted and unprepared to deal with a missile test short of an ICBM. The North Korean government follows U.S. media and will also have been well aware that the Trump Administration’s foreign policy team is not yet complete.
Iran Faced Few Consequences for Its Missile Test
One of the first nations to test the Trump administration was Iran. During the campaign then candidate Trump criticized the deal between the P5+1 and Iran on its nuclear program as a bad deal. While issue of Iran’s nuclear program may be resolved for the moment, it is still subject to UN resolution 2231 which prohibits it from engaging in ballistic missile tests related to the delivery of a nuclear weapon. After its missile test in early February, the Trump administration responded by putting Iran “on notice” and sanctioning 13 Iranian individuals and 12 Iranian entries. This was not dissimilar to the sanctions the Obama administration placed on Iran after its 2016 missile test when it initially sanctioned 11 entities and individuals. Iran shortly followed the new sanctions by the Trump administration with an additional missile test. Having faced more severe sanctions for its nuclear program, North Korea likely did not see the actions against Iran as a deterrent, but rather in line with standard U.S. policy.
The Trump Administration is Shifting Its Foreign Policy
The relatively mild response, rhetoric notwithstanding, to the Iran missile test seems to be part of a broader shift in the Trump administration’s foreign policy. President Trump recently called President Xi Jinping and pledged his commitment to the One China policy, repairing damage that had been done to U.S.-China relations. In the Middle East, the White House has come out against the expansion of existing settlements beyond their borders or the development of new settlements in the Palestinian territories. In many ways, the Trump administration’s foreign policy seems to be moving in a more traditional direction, and hence one where North Korea would feel confident in its abilities to predict U.S. responses.
The Trump Administration is Strengthening Asian Alliances
During the campaign, then candidate Trump suggested that he would be willing to remove U.S. troops from South Korea and Japan if they did not contribute more towards the stationing of U.S. troops. The removal of U.S. troops has been a long-time policy goal for North Korea. If Trump was serious about pressuring Seoul and Tokyo on the alliance, Pyongyang might not want to engage in activity that would discourage discord. However, since winning the election, President Trump has called both Park Geun-hye and Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn to pledge the United States commitment to South Korea’s defense. He has made similar reassurances to Japan, including affirming that the Senkakus come under the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty. Most recently, as part of the summit meeting with Prime Minister Abe Shinzo the administration not only continued to affirm the importance of the alliance with Japan, but said that they were committed to defending Japan against North Korea. While European allies may continue to have concerns about the commitment of the Trump administration, South Korea and Japan have only received reassurances. If North Korea was hoping the U.S. alliance with South Korea would weaken under Trump, there have been few signs of that to date.
A Medium Range Test is Likely to Have Minimal Impact on South Korean Politics
In 2016, North Korea conducted eight Musudan missile tests, seven additional ballistic missile tests, and around 30 other missile tests. Whereas an ICBM test would have heightened awareness of the North Korean threat and potentially galvanized security concerns prior to a new presidential election, if President Park’s impeachment is upheld, an additional medium range test of a missile such as the Pukguksong-2 would be unlikely to change the political dynamics in South Korea.
While the missile test will undoubtedly be viewed as a test for the Trump administration, and a political window may have opened that would enhance North Korea’s opportunity to do so with minimal consequences, the primary driver behind the test was the regime’s ability to advance its missile program. The ability to confirm the technical capability of both the use of solid fuel, if confirmed, and North Korea’s mobile launch platform likely outweigh any sanctions placed on the regime. At the same time, given the nature of the test, it also helps minimize the likelihood of significant sanctions being levied by the international community while not significantly undermining other North Korean interests.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.