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ICBM tests and the strength of nuclear signaling

by Rhiane Kall

“The most effective threat is one that never has to be implemented” — Thomas Schelling.

On March 24, the North Korean media released a “Hollywood-style” video of their first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile launch this year: the Hwasong-17, with a potential range of 9,320 miles. After having declared a period of self-imposed moratorium in 2018 during the North-South summit meetings, North Korea has indicated a return to nuclear provocations this year via their testing of more than 7 ballistic missiles in the month of January, and the strategic placement of their ICBM base near the Chinese border in an attempt to deter preventive attacks from the United States. These actions have led many news sources to analyze the implications of the more frequent missile testing on the magnitude of the threat North Korea now poses for America and its East Asian allies. In earlier stages of North Korea’s nuclear program, the development of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) was considered a “critical threshold” that North Korea was not to be allowed to cross. However, with their development of the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 ICBMs from 2017, with ranges of up to 13,000 kilometers that would reach continental United States, coupled with the recent testing of Hwasong-17, North Korea is now equipped with second strike abilities at a reach beyond regional East Asia; this milestone aligns with Leader Kim Jong Un’s stated intentions to develop a “powerful nuclear deterrent capable of containing the nuclear threats from the U.S. and guaranteeing our long-term security.”

From the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 to Russian threats to use nuclear weapons on Ukraine, nuclear crises, i.e. the conflict between nuclear-armed countries that risks the use of nuclear weapons, have been characterized by a “competition in risk taking”. Matthew Kroenig (2013) argues that states with nuclear superiority are more likely to win nuclear crises. The increasing pace of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development and testing indicates a desire to demonstrate this superiority. According to a RAND corporation report, North Korea could have 200 nuclear weapons and several dozen ICBMs by 2027 (Bandow, 2021) — an exponential increase from their current estimated warhead count of 50. While Kroenig defines superiority as the “size of a state’s arsenal relative to that of its opponent”, the range of a nuclear weapon is also a significant factor because it affects the state’s second strike capabilities: whether or not it is able to strike within the range of its adversary (Burr and Richelson, 2000). This implies that inter-continental range ballistic missiles could take precedence over the development of several short-range ballistic missiles, in terms of maximizing the intensity of the regional threat vs international threat the country poses. While Sechser and Fuhrmann (2017) argue that nuclear blackmail is ineffective since threats to launch nuclear weapons lack credibility, North Korea’s brinkmanship strategy of periodic nuclear testing has long been perceived as a security threat to the international community. Unlike more nascent proliferators, North Korea frequently uses nuclear testing as their primary form of overt provocation to initiate diplomatic talks with the US, in an attempt to obtain concessions in their own favor, the refusal of which further creates pretext for nuclear expansion. Since the country’s industrial capacity and technological sophistication (Mehta and Whitlark 2017), are constantly under question by news media, which claims that North Korea has “a long way to go in perfecting warheads for its intercontinental ballistic missiles”, North Korean credibility of its theoretical development of stronger nuclear weapons is undermined. This creates the need to perform tests as the most credible means for signaling North Korea’s developing nuclear capabilities to the world, in tangible terms of its destructive ability.

In this paper I hypothesize that: The potential range of a nuclear missile being tested is strongly associated with the intensity of the public response, assessed by the web-based attention it receives. As the range increases, the threat is closer geographically to the United States, thereby making the geopolitical salience of the nuclear threat more credible, and eliciting a stronger response, than a short range missile.

I conduct a small-scale data analysis to evaluate this relationship empirically, using the North Korean Provocations database by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), supplemented by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) database, and news articles, for more recent testing reports. I look at cases of only missile provocation via testing, from 2013 to 2022, as a categorical variable ‘missile range’ with Medium-range, Intermediate-range and Inter-continental Ballistic Missile coded from 2 to 4. To measure the public response to the nuclear testing, I use Google trends to ascertain the interest value for the search term ‘North Korea’ under the news search in the United States. This metric ranges from 0 (no data) to 100 (maximum interest).

Assessing the distribution of the data visually, it is possible to notice that higher range missiles elicit interest/response within the range of 50–100, while reaction to lower range missiles remains concentrated between 5–25 intensity of interest.

A regression of the independent categorical variable ‘missile range’, against the dependent variable ‘elicited interest’ indicates a statistically significant relationship between the two variables at a p-value of 0.01<0.05. Therefore, the null hypothesis of no association can be rejected. The R2 value of 0.21 for the model suggests that the range of a nuclear weapon test predicts 21% of the variation in resultant interest by the public. While this is objectively low, one must take into account the fact that there is a very limited dataset of observations within the model.

An observation of trends in the data also demonstrates that when many missiles (often of the same range) are tested in quick succession, the second one tends to receive greater interest coverage on Google. In other words, successive nuclear weapons tests cause more effective, widespread intensive signaling of the development of capability.

While this analysis focuses on the influence of North Korean nuclear testing as a potent means of signaling, forms of non-military signaling such as statements released by the government have also received interest values of up to 100 in news searches, such as Former President Donald Trump’s June 28th tweet about visiting the DMZ on the 30th to further nuclear talks. Since diplomatic negotiations and official statements threatening nuclear expansion seem to elicit similar levels of public news response, conducting a comparative analysis of the responses to each would shed light on whether testing is consistently more successful at drawing the international community’s attention, and therefore North Korea’s preferred strategy.

In conclusion, the type and range of a nuclear missile being tested is associated with the subsequent public response to the security threat it poses, at a larger scale. The implications of such an association are manifold, given that North Korea has warned for over a year that they will begin testing “bigger and better weapons”. As the country’s commitment to increasing bargaining leverage via nuclear expansion increases, one can project more ICBM tests in the near future. Second, as the association between nuclear superiority and the consequent brinkmanship leverage with the United States grows, aspiring or nascent nuclear states may become increasingly inclined to push to boundaries towards building Inter-continental range Ballistic Missiles as well. Looking ahead, with the new South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol, who has emphasized his intentions to take a more hawkish stance with North-South foreign policy, it remains to be seen to what extent North Korea will maintain its current pace of nuclear testing with a focus on long-range arsenal.

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