The Korean Peninsula: Escalating Missile Tests and the Potential for Policy Changes


North Korea test fired four missiles into the Sea of Japan on 6 March. The launches were its second test in a little over three weeks, and the first since Pyongyang threatened ‘strong retaliatory measures’ against annual US-South Korea drills that began late last month.

As in past years, heightened rhetoric and further tests are likely before the joint exercises conclude in late April. This is particularly the case as the US administration reviews its strategy on the North amid existing tensions over other recent tests and the assassination of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia.

According to the South Korean military, the missiles flew around 1,000km east from the Tongchang-ri northwestern region, reaching a maximum altitude of 260km. Japan confirmed that three of the missiles landed within the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, as near as 300km to the country’s coastline.

The prime minister of Japan suggested that the launches showed ‘North Korea has developed a new threat’, but the range and altitude of the firings were not clearly suggestive of an addition to the North’s capabilities. Rather than a test of technical advancements, the firing of multiple missiles at once may be more indicative of efforts to test the military’s operational capability, for example to overcome missile defences through simultaneous launches.

International response and outlook

The tests prompted criticism from South Korea, Japan, the US, China and Russia. But as was the case following the test in mid-February, we do not anticipate significant new international measures against the North. For now, further efforts are likely to be around ensuring the enforcement of existing UN sanctions – such as China’s decision to suspend coal imports from the North after the mid-February launch.

An immediate outcome of the test has been a further push by the government in Seoul to speed up the deployment of the US’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) to the South. The country’s acting president said that the launches proved the need for Seoul to ‘quickly finish’ the deployment – and components of the system began to arrive in the country in the days following the test.

Into the coming months, policy shifts by the major powers look more probable should the North continue to demonstrate its developing missile and nuclear capabilities. Amid signs that China is running short of patience, relations with the North are currently strained. One former aide to George W Bush cited by the Financial Times argued that by holding the launches as China launched the National People’s Congress this week Kim Jong-un ‘appears to be poking a finger at Beijing, showing he remains defiantly his own man’.

Beyond this symbolism, the launches are also undermining a broader policy position held by China, which perceives the THAAD as a major strategic threat. Each test makes it more difficult for Beijing to claim that the deployment is an unjustified attempt by the US to encircle the country.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is conducting a review of US strategy towards North Korea. There appears to be an acceptance that the Obama policy of ‘strategic patience’ – that is, waiting for the impact of sanctions to bring the North to the table – has not worked, but there is no clarity about what an alternative approach might look like. According to a Wall Street Journal report in early March, the review includes ‘the possibility of military force or regime change’. The report does not provide a full context for how credible an option this is – but its discussion is perhaps unsurprising in the context of a wide-ranging scenario analysis that would address even low probability approaches and outcomes.

Despite these indications of the potential for a shift in approach by Washington or Beijing, there are currently few indications that the US, China or other East Asian states are close to formulating a coordinated policy that might restrain Kim from continuing with the current rapid pace of military testing. The North has been on this trajectory for the past 12 to 18 months and shown no indication that it intends to shift away from it.

Kim’s priority remains regime survival. Primarily, this means developing operational nuclear weapons and delivery systems as quickly as possible to prevent or deter military intervention. But the assassination of Kim Jong-nam in February may well point to a concern in Pyongyang over foreign-backed regime change. The use of VX to kill him certainly appears calculated to send a message about the North’s ability to retaliate, at the least against regional states, if under attack.

Image: A man watches a news report of the Pukguksong-2 missile test, February 2017; Ahn Young-joon AP/Press Association Images

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