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Pyongyang missiles hint at long-term standoff with US

N. Korea views negotiation as a sideshow, while US is unwilling to expend more political capital

North Korea test-fires a pair of short-range ballistic missiles from a rail-mobile launcher during firing drills on Jan. 14. (KCNA-Yonhap)
North Korea test-fires a pair of short-range ballistic missiles from a rail-mobile launcher during firing drills on Jan. 14. (KCNA-Yonhap)
Pyongyang’s recent missile launches serve a dual purpose, and may hint at its long-term strategy in dealing with the US, experts say.

Pyongyang test-fired four ballistic missiles in three discrete launches, which were conducted over 10 days in short intervals.

Experts affiliated with US think tanks view the missile tests show Pyongyang’s long-term strategy to bolster military power to negotiate from a position of strength and gain the upper hand on the US. 

For the Kim Jong-un regime, nuclear negotiation is currently a mere sideshow.

Friday’s test launch, which came after the Biden administration’s announcement on North Korea-specific sanctions, provides a clearer picture of Pyongyang’s long-term approach to Washington. Notably, the rail-mobile missile forces in charge of Friday’s test-firing play a counterstrike or retaliatory role.

The external message is clear: Additional sanctions and the international community’s opprobrium will not stop advanced weapons development.

Washington, meanwhile, does not see any advantages of devoting more political capital to North Korea-related issues and deviating from its current dual track approach of “diplomacy and stern deterrence.” 

Friday’s launch fills dual purposes
Experts point out that the purpose of the missile tests is predominantly of a domestic nature at a critical juncture for the Kim Jong-un regime. The regime has pushed forward its five-year plan to develop defense capability and advance and variegate conventional and nonconventional weapons.

But Friday’s launch appears to simultaneously deliver a message to the North Korean people and the US in light of its timing and North Korean state media reports.

“I’m usually hesitant to ascribe much external motive for missile launches, which I believe generally take place primarily for internal reasons,” Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Korea Herald. 

“But there may have been an aspect of convenience here: test readiness, but also demonstrate that US sanctions won’t deter missile tests.”

Pyongyang test-fired a pair of short-range ballistic missiles from a rail-mobile launcher one day after the Biden administration imposed its first North Korea-specific sanctions on individuals and an entity responsible for procuring missile materials from China and Russia.

The latest test launch Friday afternoon came hours after North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs swiftly repudiated Washington’s sanctions designations and warned that the country would be “compelled to take a stronger and clear reaction if the US adopts such a confrontational stance at all costs” in a press statement.

Panda also pointed to the implications of the flight distance and the specific role of the rail-mobile units.

The 430 kilometers flight distance of two KN-23 short-range ballistic missiles launched Friday is approximately equidistant from the launch site in Uiju County, North Pyongan Province, to the United States Forces Korea headquarters in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province.

“There’s a fairly clear message, I think, that this capability could be used in wartime to retaliate against USFK headquarters,” Panda said, adding that North Korea’s top military official Pak Jong-chon in September elucidated that the rail-mobile units were designed to play a retaliatory or counterstrike role.

N. Korea in for long-term confrontation
Rachel Minyoung Lee, a nonresident fellow with the 38 North Program at the Stimson Center, pointed out Friday’s missile test “appears to have been primarily driven by domestic factors.”

Lee said a series of missile tests this year should be viewed “within the context of its five-year defense development plan and Kim’s position that North Korea is in for a long-term confrontation with the US.”

After his misfiring in Hanoi, the North Korean leader in December 2019 proposed a “frontal breakthrough” campaign as a recalibrated approach.

The campaign is a grand strategy to simultaneously build a self-reliant economy to emasculate sanctions and develop national defense capabilities, accepting the long-term confrontation with the US as a fait accompli.

“The message to the internal audience is that the defense development plan is being implemented as planned. To external audiences, including the US, North Korea is saying it is moving according to its own timetable, regardless of the international community’s condemnation of missile tests or even moves to impose more sanctions,” Lee said.

Nuclear negotiation sideshow
Some experts say that North Korea is falling back on its old playbook to ramp up pressure and obtain more concessions from the US.

But fundamentally and more importantly, Friday’s missile launch offered a clear cut picture of North Korea’s long-term strategy for nuclear negotiations with the US.

Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, pointed out Kim Jong-un seems determined to push forward his five-year plan for the development of national defense rather than seeking dialogue.

“Maybe once it’s complete, and perhaps when there’s a new US administration, Kim will look for opportunities to negotiate again,” Pollack told The Korea Herald. “It’s pretty clear that Kim doesn’t see Biden as a promising negotiating partner.”

For now, nuclear negotiation is a mere sideshow. North Korea’s weapons tests should be understood in light of the country’s long-term strategy to negotiate from a position of strength and gain the upper hand on the US.

“I imagine that Kim’s hope and expectation are that the demonstration of a high enough level of sophistication will convince Washington, DC to treat him with more respect and to deal with him on terms more to his liking,” Pollack said.

US unwilling to expend more political capital
A spate of ballistic missile tests reflects Pyongyang’s calculus that the test launches would not lead to new UNSC resolutions and adverse economic consequences. Considering international dynamics, it is highly improbable that China and Russia will lend support for the US-led initiative to ratchet up pressure on North Korea.

The Kim regime also has learned the lesson of taking advantage of US apathy toward North Korea during the Obama administration.

“Kim probably sensed that there was enough wriggle room to test the limits of Washington’s patience,” Soo Kim, a policy analyst at Rand Corp., said. “In short, he probably knew that the consequences would be trivial, and the benefits of these missile-firing episodes far outweighed the costs.”

But there appears to be a vicious, neverending circle going on here. North Korea’s continued weapons test and rebuff to the US’ overture for unconditional dialogue has made the Biden administration relegate the North Korean nuclear issues to a lower priority.

Washington also wrestles with a number of more pressing foreign policy challenges, including a revival of the Iran nuclear deal and the Russian troop buildup near Ukraine’s borders.

“The White House seems to see little advantage in dealing with the North Koreans, or at least not enough to make any gestures to them. Attempts to communicate with them so far seem more like efforts to win more cooperation from China,” Pollack said. “I don’t think the (Biden) administration would ignore an invitation. But they aren’t going to expend any political capital to try to get one.”

Also, most experts view that the midterm elections -- which are generally overshadowed by pressing domestic challenges -- would not have an impact on the Biden administration’s North Korea policy.

“If the mid-terms do matter, they’ll probably matter in the sense of convincing the administration that this is not the time to make any major changes,” Panda said. “American voters are unlikely to punish the president’s party for North Korean missile launches. Other foreign policy issues may matter more.”

Biden poised for hard line
Washington’s shift in strategic focus on countering Beijing in the Indo-Pacific region also would make it more onerous to take a conciliatory and softened approach to Pyongyang.

The Biden administration is assessed as subordinating its North Korea policy to its Indo-Pacific strategy framework. Analysts say Washington has used its North Korea policy as a means to manage alliance relations with the goal of rallying allies to strengthen extended deterrence against China.

“I would think that a policy shift in the direction of concessions would, over time, complicate our ability to deal with North Korea and potentially create additional policy challenges vis-a-vis the region writ large -- think China, Taiwan, and broader alliance challenges,” said Soo Kim.

Against that backdrop, North Korea’s weapons tests could make the Biden administration put more weight on “stern deterrence” rather than diplomacy, which Biden pointed to as in line with his North Korea policy.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday also said the US was “very focused” on ensuring that Pyongyang faces “repercussions and consequences” for missile tests in coordination with allies and partners.

“(The) Biden administration seems poised to take a harder line stance if North Korea continues to conduct missile test-launches,” 38 North’s Lee said. “Its latest imposition of sanctions on North Korean personnel is a testament to that.”

By Ji Da-gyum (dagyumji@heraldcorp.com)
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