Would a North Korean ICBM Test be a Bluff or a Scientific Experiment and What Might This Mean?

During the cold war the superpowers often argued in favour of proceeding with the early research and development stages of a contentious strategic weapons programme by arguing that it could be traded as part of an arms control agreement, or could be used as bait to get stalled arms control talks going.

Additionally, the cold war saw what we might call “bluffing.” Khrushchev, at a time when US analysis was dominated by, erroneous and known to be erroneous, fears of a “missile gap,” pursued a strategy of “bluff,” which had the Soviet Union developing medium and intermediate range missiles to put Washington’s NATO allies in Europe under threat to increase leverage whilst exaggerating, through posture, Moscow’s ICBM capabilities.

This bluff was, of course, called by Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis leading, in part, to the Brezhnev strategic build up.

North Korea, some analysts argue, is pursuing a similar strategy of bluff. The rational thing for North Korea to do, given its limited technical capabilities, is to continue with a medium and intermediate range ballistic missile testing programme to develop a regionally significant strategic arsenal of nuclear weapons, whilst bluffing, akin to cold war era “trade bait” as it were, on the ICBM in hopes of reaching some form of diplomatic settlement with the United States.

If North Korea is bluffing, so to speak, then any prospective ICBM launch would largely be a demonstration rather than a scientific experiment. A demonstration is a launch for political effect, a test is a scientific experiment designed to gain know how for a growing weapons programme.

38North, in an article written by John Schilling, superbly considers the technical matters at issue here. Schilling writes,

First, any “test” that takes place so soon after such a high-level political announcement is probably no test at all, but a demonstration. A test is an experiment, an attempt to determine whether or not a new system will work, and if not, why. A demonstration is meant to prove to a skeptical audience that, yes, North Korea does have a workable ICBM. Even if a test ends in failure and the North loses credibility it would still gain valuable information about why it failed and how to fix it. People tend to call their demonstrations “tests” to minimize the impact if they do fail, but Kim’s announcement means North Korean credibility will unavoidably be at stake in any long-range missile launch

Schilling writes that a launch of an Unha space launch vehicle decked up in military garb would be a demonstration, and the only novel thing Pyongyang could do would be to use an Unha launch as an opportunity to test its re-entry vehicle technology. This would essentially function as a demonstration and so would be in accord with the bluff hypothesis even though, according to US intelligence, a workable re-entry vehicle is a key piece missing in the North Korean jigsaw puzzle.

Second, the North could launch the KN-08 and KN-14 at a tempo that would repeatedly make political waves but the tempo of launching precludes Pyongyang’s scientists and engineers from studying the cause of flight test failures, so this too would be in accord with the bluff hypothesis. It is surmised that North Korea’s initial KN-08 or KN-14 launches will be failures, a reasonable assumption given the history of the early cold war, North Korea’s ballistic missile programme, and the failure rate of the Musudan MRBM/IRBM.

Finally, North Korea could test the KN-08, or KN-14, at a reasonable pace, say a launch every three to six months according to Schilling, enabling North Korea’s missileers to determine the reasons why its missiles are failing. Furthermore, Schilling writes, the North would likely test on known trajectories and with the full panoply of scientific instrumentation.

I have long supposed that North Korea has been using its strategic capabilities as a form of “coercive bandwagoning,” that is to hopefully induce the United States to engage in bilateral diplomacy with a view to normalising Pyongyang’s status within the political, economic and security architecture of Northeast Asia. The bluff hypothesis accords with this view, and a demonstration ICBM programme rather than a scientific testing programme is what one would expect of coercive bandwagoning which uses strategic programmes as inducements to trade.

A scientific testing programme, however, might indicate something else. Namely, that North Korea no longer regards the strategy of coercive bandwagoning as feasible for the United States will not be bluffed into improving diplomatic ties. North Korea can only find its place in Northeast Asia through its own efforts, and this requires developing an umbrella of strategic deterrence under which such efforts can proceed.

North Korea can have no autonomous place in Northeast Asia without strategic nuclear deterrence, Pyongyang’s strategic planners may have concluded.

The technical aspects of North Korea’s looming ICBM test or tests might give us insight into such political and strategic considerations. The technical analysis of strategic programmes are at their most insightful when they help to provide understanding of political processes.

Of course, we should not look at these things as if passive observers and, it must be said, nor have we. We could provide North Korea the outlines of a diplomatic settlement in return for denuclearisation. The standard position is that this has been offered, but rejected by the North. I think, however, you will find that this leaves out of history the times when Washington scuttled promising diplomatic initiatives.

I suspect, but cannot know, that the North is embarking upon a scientific ICBM programme on grounds that coercive bandwagoning has failed, and so long as US policy continues upon its Bush II and Obama trajectory that assumption would be a well founded one.

In short, North Korea’s missile programme tells us things not just about “them” but also “us,” and “we” do has bearing on what “they” do.