North Korea has once again signaled its determination to flout international rules and world opinion, and take actions that risk regional peace and stability. The test of an intermediate-range missile this past weekend has pushed the challenge of dealing with the regime in Pyongyang to the top of the security agenda. Plainly, a policy shift is in order as North Korea continues its nuclear and missile modernization programs without interruptions. Unfortunately, there are as yet no good solutions to this problem.
North Korea on Sunday tested what is believed to have been a modified intermediate-range missile. It traveled 500 km from its launch site at Banghyon air base in the western part of the country and splashed down in the Sea of Japan. The test was the first of the year by the North, and was not an intercontinental ballistic missile as many had feared. In his New Year address, supreme leader Kim Jong Un said that his government was in the “final stages” of developing an ICBM. North Korea has never successfully tested such a weapon. When that does happen, a missile that can deliver a nuclear warhead thousands of kilometers away — in other words, capable of reaching the continental United States — will be, for U.S. defense planners, a “strategic game changer.”
The immediate question after every North Korean test is, why now? Some in South Korea believe that the test was intended to mark the birthday of Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un’s father. But the test also followed the phone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, a conversation that restored some stability to that bilateral relationship after Trump questioned the “one-China” policy that Beijing insists is the foundation of its relations with any country. Trump has indicated that he believes China is the key to getting North Korea to end its provocative behavior; according to this logic, the test is Pyongyang’s way of demonstrating the limits of Chinese influence.
A second geopolitical argument focuses on the recent tour of U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis to Seoul and Tokyo, and the summit between Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which was going on as the test occurred. On Friday, Trump declared that defending against nuclear and missile threats from North Korea was a “very, very high priority.” The missile launch both overshadowed the Abe-Trump meeting and made clear to those three governments that Pyongyang was not intimidated by those developments.
Abe rightfully called the test “absolutely intolerable,” and demanded that Pyongyang fully comply with all United Nations Security Council resolutions. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suge said the launch was “clearly a provocation to Japan and the region,” a view that was echoed by South Korea’s acting president, Hwang Gyo-ahn, who pledged a “corresponding punishment” in response. Trump, standing by Abe at a hastily called news conference after a day of golf, said that the U.S. “stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent.”
The tests are a provocation. But it is a mistake to think that foreign reactions are foremost in the mind of the North Korean leadership. It is most likely that the imperatives of the missile and nuclear programs drive testing. North Korea is determined to acquire a nuclear deterrent, a weapon that it believes is critical to the survival of the regime. Its status as a nuclear-weapon possessing state has been written into the nation’s constitution. Guaranteeing that status drove North Korea to conduct two nuclear tests and launch at least 25 projectiles last year. Six sets of U.N. sanctions since its first nuclear test in 2006 have had no discernible impact on Pyongyang’s thinking. By any measure, current policy toward Pyongyang is ineffective and must change.
After Kim’s New Year’s speech, Trump tweeted that a North Korean ICBM test “won’t happen.” Coming on the heels of a campaign marked by rhetoric that suggested stark departures from U.S. policy, there were fears that Trump himself could destabilize the region with radical action: At various times, Trump said he might pursue face-to-face talks with Kim, letting (or encouraging) Japan and South Korea to go nuclear themselves, or even preemptive action against the North. His administration’s policy, however, has been marked by more continuity than change.
After the weekend missile test, then U.S. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and his South Korean counterpart Kim Kwan-jin agreed to “seek all possible options” to stop the North from future destabilizing acts. During his Seoul visit, Mattis affirmed the two countries’ determination to go through with the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system that has enraged China.
Alliance solidarity, between the U.S and its two Northeast Asian allies and between the two allies themselves, is a precondition to any successful strategy to deal with North Korea. It is, however, not enough. Ultimately, Pyongyang’s calculus — its weighing of the costs and benefits of nuclear and missile tests — must change. We do not as yet know how to do that.