North Korean Missile Launches Signal a Grim Future

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be revisiting his 2017 playbook of nuclear and missile brinkmanship to extract concessions from Washington and his neighbors as he grapples with economic woes and US-led sanctions over his nuclear goals.

North Korea’s short-range missile launches on Monday were the country’s fourth this month, signaling a reluctance to be ignored by the Biden administration, which has been focused on tackling larger rivals like China and Russia.

Experts believe the tests might also signal a rising urgency in the country’s need for foreign assistance after its economy deteriorated more as a result of the harsh sanctions and two years of enforced border restrictions.

The two missiles fired near Pyongyang on Monday followed the restart of train freight operations with China, which had been halted due to pandemic fears, in what is presumably a move to resuscitate the country’s ailing economy.

While pandemic measures remain in place, commerce between China’s Dandong and North Korea’s Sinuiju will continue, according to Zhao Lijian of the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

While North Korea is certain to continue demonstrating its weapons in the coming weeks, it may choose to keep things quiet before the start of the February Winter Olympics in China, its key ally and economic lifeline, by firing known short-range missiles rather than more provocative systems.

However, after the Beijing Olympics are over, it is possible that the stakes may be drastically raised. Kim might begin testing nuclear explosives and intercontinental ballistic missiles, according to Du Hyeogn Cha, an expert at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

While in negotiations with former US President Donald Trump in 2018, Kim put a halt to nuclear and ICBM tests. However, since their second meeting in 2019, when the Americans rejected North Korea’s proposal for massive sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear weapons, the diplomacy has been derailed.

North Korea has increased its launches of short-range missiles meant to circumvent regional missile defenses in recent months.

Its authorities may believe that staging additional provocative tests is necessary to sway the Biden administration, which has promised open-ended discussions but has indicated that sanctions would not be eased unless Kim takes concrete measures to halt his nuclear weapons development.

It’s doubtful if nuclear or ICBM tests will sway Washington, which is more likely to retaliate with additional sanctions and military pressure, including the restart of large military drills with South Korea, according to Cha.

A nuclear test, according to Nam Sung-wook, a North Korean specialist at Korea University in Seoul, is more plausible than an ICBM test since it would produce more shock. That test might be used by the North to claim that it has developed the technology to make a nuclear warhead small enough to put on its ostensibly hypersonic missile, which it first tested in September.

North Korea, according to Nam, will time the test to maximize its political impact, citing South Korean presidential elections in March and President Joe Biden’s upcoming midterm elections in November. In September 2017, North Korea conducted its sixth and last nuclear-weapons test.

“There is no other option in Pyongyang’s perspective to get Washington’s attention except a huge provocation,” Nam added.

Following Kim’s unveiling of a new five-year plan to improve his military forces in 2021, North Korea stepped up efforts to increase its weapons capabilities, with a wish list that included hypersonic missiles, solid-fuel ICBMs, surveillance satellites, and submarine-launched nuclear missiles.

The frequency of testing since then, however, appears to reflect Kim’s ambition to break out of the country’s present worsening economic troubles and international isolation — what looks to be the most difficult phase of his decade-long leadership.

“North Korea is attempting to send a message to the rest of the world that it will continue to go its own way regardless of sanctions.” Internally, the leadership is attempting to persuade its people that the supreme leader’s pledges will be fulfilled regardless of the circumstances, whether it’s weapons development or overcoming sanctions through a self-sufficient economy,” Cha added.

“However, they are proceeding with the tests at a breakneck rate, revealing a feeling of urgency among Pyongyang’s elite that they must reach an agreement with the US by 2022 or face problems.”

North Korea’s commerce with China decreased by around 80% in 2020, according to South Korean estimates, before plummeting by two-thirds in the first nine months of 2021. Grain production fell to its lowest level since Kim gained control in 2011, resulting in the worst decrease since 1997.

North Korea has severely limited cross-border transportation and commerce for the past two years, describing its anti-coronavirus campaign as a matter of “national life,” and is said to have ordered forces to kill on sight any trespassers who enter its borders.

Experts believe that a big COVID-19 epidemic in North Korea would have disastrous effects due to the country’s weak health-care system, and might possibly spark unrest.

According to Park Won Gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University, the restoration of the railway link with China shows how difficult it has become for its leadership to sustain the economic burden created by border restrictions.

North Korea has mastered the art of brinkmanship for decades, creating diplomatic crises through nuclear tests and threats before initiating dialogue in the hopes of extracting concessions. Before commencing their diplomacy in 2018, Kim accelerated the process by conducting a series of extremely provocative nuclear and ICBM tests and exchanging threats of apocalyptic destruction with Trump.

North Korea began 2022 with two successful hypersonic missile tests, which Kim said would dramatically improve his “war deterrent.” North Korea promised harsher and more specific action after the Biden administration slapped more penalties over the tests, then launched two missiles from a train on Friday.

According to state media photographs from Monday’s launch, the North tested a missile that resembles the US MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System. The missiles are part of North Korea’s growing short-range armament, which is meant to be agile and fly at low altitudes, perhaps improving their chances of avoiding missile defense systems in South Korea and Japan.

North Korea’s ambition to develop and mass-produce such missiles, according to Park, is an important aspect of the country’s aspirations to solidify its reputation as a nuclear power. Its pressure campaign is geared not just at gaining economic rewards, but also at negotiating with Washington from a position of strength and converting nuclear diplomacy into negotiations on reciprocal armaments reductions, he explained.

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