This has been a provocative year for North Korea. In addition to conducting its fourth nuclear weapons test in January, the Pyongyang government held a series of missile tests, all in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. As a result, the reclusive state is being subject to tighter and more oppressive sanctions. Hardship seems to have had no impact on North Korean behavior, however. Most experts expect more provocations in the days and weeks to come, even including a fifth nuclear test. The sad truth is that Pyongyang has its own imperatives, and thumbing its nose at international opinion does not hurt the regime so much as legitimizes it.
This year, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in January, launched a long-range ballistic missile in February, fired three intermediate-range missiles in recent weeks and tested submarine-launched missiles. In the last two weeks, North Korea is reported to have tested two Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which have a range of about 3,500 km — meaning that they can strike both Japan and Guam — and a submarine-launched missile. The two tests were both thought to have failed, which makes for three consecutive Musudan failures in two weeks. Those launches followed a test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile days earlier — the verdict is still out on whether that test succeeded.
Missile experts are perplexed by the rapidity of the tests. The first test occurred on April 15 and was thought to be the first ever of the Musudan, even though it has been deployed since 2007. Typically, it takes a month or two to assess a failure, so the speed with which the North proceeded with the most recent tests means its scientists did not have enough time to fix any problems.
It is likely that the North’s testing schedule is not driven by military imperatives but political ones. The first Musudan test was held on the 104th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder and president for life of North Korea who died in 1994. The most recent tests — and the much-anticipated fifth nuclear test — are generally seen as scene-setters for the seventh congress of the ruling Korean Workers Party, which will be held on Friday.
A party congress is a rarity. This will be the first since 1980. At the last meeting, Kim Jong Il, the now deceased father of current supreme leader Kim Jong Un, was officially declared successor to his father, Kim Il Sung. This meeting will amend the party’s charter and elect — or more accurately, ratify — the new party leadership. Most significantly, it will proclaim Kim Jung Un head of the party, identify the individuals closest to him along with whom he trusts, and provide some insight into the balance of power in Pyongyang.
The missile tests, and the likely fifth nuclear test, are all intended to provide a boost to the new regime. They validate the young Kim’s leadership and show that he is capable of leading the nation in difficult times.
The official rationale for all the provocations is the “hostile behavior” of the United States and its ally, South Korea. Pyongyang protests against the annual military exercises the two allies hold, insisting that they are preparations for a decapitating first strike against North Korea and a prelude to war. The North Korean Foreign Ministry has declared that it needs a “powerful nuclear deterrence” to check U.S. hostility. According to the regime’s logic, North Korea has been forced to violate international law and its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty commitments because its survival is threatened by the U.S. The government has warned that the U.S. “nuclear threat and blackmail” would merely spur it to make “drastic progress in bolstering nuclear attack capabilities.”
The U.N. Security Council met last Friday to respond to the latest tests, but even still tighter sanctions will have no effect on North Korean calculations. Pyongyang disregards the Security Council resolutions and sanctions — which will be stepped up in response to North Korea’s defiance — as empty gestures that merely demonstrate U.S. hostility and prove that the world bodies are controlled by Washington.
In fact, the Security Council deliberations are just what the Pyongyang regime wants. North Korea needs international attention. The government is unable to feed its own people and thus needs to remain in the public eye to remind the world of the trouble it can create and the need to buy it off to maintain peace. Last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping told a gathering of Asian foreign ministers that China would “absolutely not permit war or chaos on the peninsula. This situation would not benefit anyone.” Given Chinese strategic preferences, that likely means that Beijing will both press Pyongyang to moderate its behavior and provide rewards for doing so, easing some of North Korea’s most difficult economic strains.
That is precisely what North Korea wants, and will validate the Pyongyang regime’s strategy of increasing pressure to extort rewards for stopping. North Korea is using provocations to survive and the upcoming party congress will applaud the leadership for being so shrewd.
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