North Korea Tests More Missiles: Is an ICBM Test on the Horizon?

North Korea’s frenetic tempo of missile and multiple rocket launcher system testing continues, with yet another test today (range 450km, apogee 37km). Here I’d like to make some remarks about the diplomatic aspect, leaving aside the technical issues so we might catch ourselves some breath.

One thing I’ve seen being asked often in media reports during this period is; do these tests show North Korea isn’t interested in meaningful diplomacy? Yet in reality that question should be directed the other way around, as they appear to underscore the supposition it is Washington which is not interested in meaningful diplomacy.

The latest test comes after Monday’s start to Alliance 19-2, a joint command post exercise between the United States and South Korea (in particular it exercises the transferring of command from the US to ROK high command during a conflict. It’s interesting to think when precisely that is to occur under OPLAN 5015, for example when the pincers are to close on Pyongyang?). For the historically inclined Able Archer 83 was also a joint command and control exercise.  Rodong Sinmun today carried a Ministry of Foreign Affairs broadside at the joint US-ROK exercises, doubtless released to accompany today’s test. That broadside was more than a little tendentious, however it had some statements well worth reflecting upon. In particular, I draw attention to the following passage

“All the U.S.-south Korea joint military exercises which have been annually conducted during the past 65 years since then were unexceptionally aggressive war exercises simulating the surprise and preemptive attack on the DPRK.”

That’s tendentious, to be sure, however recent US-ROK operational planning for a second Korean war does, reportedly, emphasise preemptive attacks on the DPRK in the event of an acute crisis. North Korea perceives any military exercise conducted by the US and South Korea as reflective of those operational plans. Therefore, for Pyongyang, such exercises are part of what it calls Washington’s “hostile policy” which Pyongyang sees as contrary to the first commitment made by both parties in the Singapore Declaration.  The evidence publicly available also appears to suggest, especially at Panmunjom, President Trump directly pledged to Kim Jong-un he would suspend joint US-ROK military exercises, in which case the problem of meaningful diplomacy lies at Washington’s door.

The one tangible outcome of the Panmunjom summit was the promise of working level meetings between lower level US and North Korean officials. These meetings would hammer out the essentials of a deal on denuclearisation and sanctions relief, which Kim and Trump would then seal in a fourth summit. They were initially envisaged to occur in mid July, but Alliance 19-2 has put a stop to that. The problem now is that North Korea’s recent spat of missile tests, and the unveiling of a SSB Mod to the Romeo class submarine, are widely perceived as Pyongyang trying to leverage its growing military capabilities to get Washington to implement what it (appears) to have pledged at Panmunjom.

Let us imagine this fails, but nonetheless North Korea decides to enter working level meetings. That would make Pyongyang look weak. These working level meetings would presumably involve the US special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun. This is what Biegun said not long after the failed Hanoi summit

“The marginal benefit to North Korea of economic relief is far greater than the marginal benefit to us of partial denuclearization”

A North Korean capitulation on working level meetings would suggest that to be true. The big thing here is that strategic planners in Pyongyang might think that the credibility of its nuclear deterrent is at stake, making working level meetings unlikely in the absence of a US concession on military exercises. It may make Washington think sanctions are its trump card, leaving it holding out on sanctions relief for further North Korean concessions. A North Korean capitulation on working level meetings might have hawks in Washington downplaying the credibility of Pyongyang’s deterrent, helping to entrench the view Kim’s hydrogen bomb is a paper tiger. That could make Washington even less willing to support a partial denuclearisation deal, or better still what North Korea regards as denuclearisation. Why accept denuclearisation as Pyongyang conceives of it on account of what one regards to be a paper tiger?  At the outer end of the spectrum, a North Korean capitulation might encourage hawks to be more adventurous in any future denouement or it may allow them to attain the upper hand in internal policy debates during a crisis.

North Korea, it would appear, has a strategic incentive to escalate especially now that the very credibility of its deterrence posture appears to be on the line. The Rodong Sinmun broadside certainly reflects this when it says

“We have already warned several times that the joint military exercises would block progress in the DPRK-U.S. relations and the inter-Korean relations and bring us into reconsideration of our earlier major steps.”

Consider some of the more tendentious aspects to the broadside

“the U.S. did not hesitate to conduct the missile interception test simulating an interception of our ICBMs and the test-fire of ICBM “Minuteman-3” and SLBM “Trident 2 D-5.”

The US would not have tested a Minuteman III and Trident II D-5 SLBM on account of North Korea. The mention of an ICBM in this context might be a not too subtle hint of how North Korea might escalate. The reference to the Trident II D-5 could be a hint of an upcoming KN-11 SLBM test from the Romeo SSB Mod submarine.

The big lesson to take from all this, however, is that if things get worse, we should apportion the blame squarely upon Donald Trump as it was his false promise to Kim Jong-un that got this ball rolling. If that false promise was made just to secure a nice, momentary, public relations coup then mega would be Trump’s sin. So would the media’s as the Trump Bump could end up looking like this

The North Korean broadside may be interpreted in a more hopeful light, namely so long as the exercises continue talks are off the agenda but when Alliance 19-2 ends end that’s a different story. North Korea does package good news in a hefty dose of harsh rhetoric. The broadside indeed states,

“we remain unchanged in our stand to resolve the issues through dialogue. But the dynamics of dialogue will be more invisible as long as the hostile military moves continue.”

To cite the Athenian representatives to Melos, hope is apt to be an expensive commodity. The thing isn’t to hope North Korea will enter into working level talks after Alliance 19-2 or to hope Washington engages in meaningful diplomacy, rather it’s for citizens in liberal democratic societies to pressure government toward that direction.

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