Among the missiles launched recently is the KN-23, a North Korean variant of the Russian Iskander missile. It has a short range, but is capable of flying on a complicated trajectory which greatly increases its chances of penetrating enemy anti-missile defense systems.
So what are the major goals of these tests, and what do North Korean strategists hope to achieve with this carefully-calibrated show of military strength?
Of course, the recent launches have a purely technological dimension as well. The Iskander-type missile is a sophisticated piece of weaponry and, like every new system, it must be tested.
These new, sophisticated missiles appear to be capable of penetrating South Korea’s anti-missile defense systems
But, of course, the timing of the test has political significance. First of all, these new launches target South Korea much more than they do the United States.
Since the missiles are not long-range, the recent tests cannot be understood as a violation of Pyongyang’s self-declared moratorium on long-range missile launches and nuclear tests, which North Korea first introduced in late 2017 and formally confirmed in early 2018. In other words, the recent launches cannot be seen as a breach of promises Pyongyang has made to Washington.
However, while Iskander-type missiles are relatively harmless to American civilian targets (the U.S. Forces Korea notwithstanding), they constitute a clear and present threat to South Korea.
To complicate things further, these new, sophisticated missiles appear to be capable of penetrating South Korea’s anti-missile defense systems.
The North Korean leadership likes to remind South Korea that, no matter how future negotiations between North Korea and the United States develop, Seoul remains within range of their missiles for the foreseeable future.
Over the last few months, North Korea has treated the South Korean leadership in a very offensive, even deliberately insulting, way.
Recent days have seen some examples of North Korean decision-makers hitting out at the South. The most obvious is the missile test launches, but another is the North’s resolute refusal to accept South Korean food aid.
Indeed, since February North Korea has increased calls for food aid, seemingly waging something we have not seen since the death of Kim Jong Il: a well-orchestrated disinformation campaign aimed at exaggerating the scale of problems its agriculture sector is currently experiencing.
And yet, last month, Pyongyang refused aid from Seoul.
This behavior might appear illogical, given that the Moon administration is believed to be so accommodating towards North Korea – the current President is even seen as a crypto-jucheist by some on the South Korean right.
But a closer look shows that things are not that simple: while Seoul is eager to make some concessions to the North, these are not the concessions the North Korean leadership wants.
When we talk about Seoul’s eagerness to cooperate we are talking about more humanitarian aid, joint celebration of nationalistic events, and a great deal of other symbolic actions.
Over the last few months, North Korea has treated the South Korean leadership in a very offensive, even deliberately insulting, way
Such actions are needed by Moon and his left-nationalist Democratic Party, since their approval ratings – still solid, but steadily dwindling – are based, above all, on their ability to handle the North and bring what can be, somewhat dishonestly, presented to voters as “inter-Korean reconciliation.”
Assorted musical concerts, anti-Japanese “history research conferences,” and even aid deliveries are likely to do the trick and create the right impression in voters’ minds and hearts.
However, this cheap symbolism is not what North Korea really wants or needs. Talk, even when it is charged with syrupy nationalist rhetoric, is cheap, and Pyongyang is run by hard-nose Machiavellian realists.
They are material boys (and, sometimes, girls): they need cash, not broad smiles and sweet talk. In other words, they want the Kaesong industrial park restarted and they want joint economic projects — in other words, an injection of serious South Korean money into their economy.
Seoul cannot deliver. The Moon administration wants to placate Pyongyang, but it needs to placate Washington, too, and it cannot even think about seriously challenging the UN-endorsed and U.S.-supported sanctions regime.
As a result, nothing substantial can be delivered until sanctions are lifted or relaxed.
From the North Korean point of view, this is what really matters. They understand that if they agree to partake in the symbolic games Seoul so badly wants them to play, this will help Moon Jae-in and his party secure better approval ratings, but yield little, if anything, of substance for themselves.
And this means that they see no reason to play nice with the Blue House. On the contrary, they want President Moon and his people to feel uncomfortable so that South Korea’s leaders will realize that sweet symbolism will not do the job.
Until this happens, Pyongyang has no reason to be polite to Seoul – but plenty of reasons to be accommodating towards the U.S.
A renewed testing schedule fits this plan nicely. It shows South Korean voters that the Blue House is not succeeding in tempering the North, but does so without annoying Americans too much.
The scheme has worked so far: President Trump after the KN-23 test on July 25 said that North Koreans “really haven’t tested any missiles” but merely “smaller ones, which is something lots [of other states] test.”
Indeed, the KN-23 is not a threat to U.S. cities, so the test does not matter to Washington – exactly the logic that North Korean policy planners are counting on.
So, the launch was another attempt to push Seoul towards more active advocacy of the real North Korean interests in Washington. But it has another dimension as well.
The choice of the short-range missile is a sign that, for the time being, Pyongyang remains serious about making a deal with the U.S.
Therefore, Pyongyang has good reason to demonstrate that it is not going to remain unobtrusive and quiet while these joint military exercises are being conducted.
This means that this month, we are likely to face more tests, and this show of force will probably continue until the drills are over.
This does not mean that the North Koreans are no longer interested in talks with the United States. On the contrary, the choice of the short-range missile is a sign that, for the time being, Pyongyang remains serious about making a deal with the U.S.
NK News readers know that the leaders of both North Korea and the United States badly need to forge some kind of agreement – not so much because such a deal is necessary from a strategic point of view, but because of their own domestic political concerns.
With an election looming, Donald Trump wants to present voters with a sellable ‘achievement’ which can be plausibly (if dishonestly) presented as a major step towards North Korea’s complete denuclearization.
Kim Jong Un has no need to worry about being voted out of office, but rumors suggest there is significant discontent in Pyongyang about the February debacle in Hanoi, where he failed to secure all-important sanctions relief from the Americans.
Readers should, then, take recent reports about a secret meeting between the U.S. and North Korean officials at the DMZ last week seriously. During this meeting, the North Korean representative reportedly told U.S. counterparts that working-level talks will resume quite soon.
One should not expect, however, that the North Koreans will allow these to take place during the upcoming joint exercises.
For a long time, Pyongyang has demonstrated that they are not willing to engage in talks while military exercises are being conducted in the southern part of the Korean peninsula.
Seeing these exercises as a blatant breach of an existing agreement, they have even fewer reasons to do so.
But this is simply a minor delay, and one should expect that the negotiations will kick-off in a month or so.
Nonetheless, these negotiations will be between the United States and North Korea.
Most likely Seoul is going to remain sidelined, and recent talks have demonstrated that this is how the North Koreans like them: at least as long as the Blue House is unsuccessful in securing sanctions relief.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCTV
Early Friday morning, North Korea's military launched two short-range missiles from an area near Yonghung on the country's east coast.
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.