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The logic of North Korea’s missile test

By Daniel Sneider, associate director for research at Stanford’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, and a former veteran foreign correspondent who covered Korea.

The successful test launch of an intermediate range ballistic missile by North Korea early on Sunday morning, May 14, has once again placed the Korean peninsula on edge. The Hwasong-12, as the North Koreans designate it, reached a high apogee of more than 2,000 kilometers (about 1,240 miles), splashing down in the Sea of Japan some 800 kilometers (about 500 miles) away. Expert analysts estimate that the missile, if fired normally, would have a range of 4,500 kilometers (about 2,800 miles), putting not only South Korea and all of Japan in range, including American naval and air bases, but also the strategic U.S. military facilities on Guam.

The launch comes literally days after a new South Korean president took office, bringing back to power in Seoul a progressive administration that is committed to returning to a policy of broad engagement with North Korea. It follows as well escalating rhetoric from the Trump administration, replete with admonitions to China to join in a tough new sanctions regime designed to bring North Korea to heel, combined with vague threats to take more aggressive actions if that course fails. And it seems to defy China’s own increasingly public displays of irritation with its treaty ally in Pyongyang, punctuated by reported slowdowns of the flow of oil and cutoffs of purchases of coal and other goods from a North Korea almost entirely dependent on trade with its Chinese neighbor.

Under the circumstances, the missile test would seem to run completely counter to any rational calculation of North Korean interests. It compelled new South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who had declared his readiness to meet his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-un, to denounce the test as a “reckless provocation” and call for Pyongyang to “[change] its attitude” before any talks could take place.

President Trump tried to use this to draw Russia into the anti-Pyongyang front, pointing to how close the missile landed to “Russian soil.” Trump again rattled sabers — “North Korea has been a flagrant menace for too long,” he said in a statement. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was meeting with his Chinese counterpart in Beijing on Sunday, joined in condemning the test as “dangerous.”

Despite the seemingly irrational nature of this test, or at least its timing, this is not a random provocation, carried out in a fit of pique by the young leader. Based on a long history of response to previous actions, North Korea’s leadership can calculate fairly confidently that they will not face serious consequences. The Moon administration is unlikely to be deterred by this test alone from pursuing an opening to the North. Despite his rhetoric, Trump seems locked into a path of economic pressure that is largely dependent on China. His statement concluded: “Let this latest provocation serve as a call for all nations to implement far stronger sanctions against North Korea.”

The Russians cautioned against any steps to “intimidate” the North Koreans. The Chinese, in a typically even-handed Foreign Ministry statement, asked all parties to “exercise restraint and do nothing to further worsen regional tensions.”

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The supposed readiness of China to “tighten the screws” on North Korea, as the American ambassador to the United Nations put it, is hardly proven. A lengthy story in the New York Times published last week detailed how North Korea maintains complex and often invisible trade and investment ties to China, allowing it to defy the United Nations sanctions regime.

More than these calculations of risk, the North Koreans are driven by a powerful unshakeable logic — the need to fashion a proven nuclear warhead and the missile delivery systems capable of delivering it to designated targets. They have carried out five nuclear tests to date that make it likely they have built a warhead small enough to fit on their missile systems. A sixth test, perhaps to refine other nuclear weapons technology, may occur at any time. For Pyongyang, their nuclear force is both a deterrent and a means of blackmail and intimidation.

The missile-testing program has accelerated in the last few years, perhaps in part to overcome past failures, but with the added goal of possessing a survivable deterrent that could retaliate even after an American strike or an initial exchange. The testing of a submarine launched missile and a mobile solid-fuel missile, both less vulnerable to pre-emptive attack, fit that goal. So too was the test earlier this year of the simultaneous launch of four missiles (one other one failed) from mobile launchers, apparently meant to show the ability to overcome limited missile defense systems based in Japan and in South Korea.

Historically, the North Korean missile program predates its nuclear weapons efforts. The rockets are considered a form of artillery in classical Soviet military doctrine, developed to accompany the massed cannons deployed as well along the heavily armed frontier between the two Koreas. Rockets were meant to both threaten the South and to hold U.S. forces in Japan, the key reserves for a wider war on the peninsula, at risk. The late North Korean leader Kim Il-sung laid this role out clearly in a 1965 speech establishing a research institution to develop missiles and other modern weapons.

“If war breaks out,” Kim has been quoted saying, “the U.S. and Japan will also be involved. In order to prevent their involvement, we have to be able to produce rockets which fly as far as Japan.”

The only change in the last half-century is the newer goal of producing inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that can reach the continental U.S. These have limited military utility, unlike the shorter and medium range rockets, but they can work politically to call into question the American extended deterrence guarantee to South Korea. With such a rocket, South Koreans may ask even more whether the U.S. is ready to sacrifice Los Angeles to come to their defense.

The strategic logic of North Korea’s nuclear and missile-testing program is deeply entrenched. The leadership may choose their timing with political calculation, or even pause temporarily, but the march to missiles will continue.

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