According to analysts, seven North Korean missile tests in the first four weeks of 2022 suggest that the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, is both striving to achieve domestic goals and showing an increasingly turbulent world that Pyongyang remains a player in the battle for power and influence. . .
“By threatening to destabilize Asia while expanding global resources elsewhere, Pyongyang is demanding that the world pay it to behave like a ‘responsible nuclear power,'” said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans. University of Seoul. South Korea.
But everyone falls for Kim’s promise to make North Korea a power that can not only stand up to its southern neighbor, but also to enemies further afield, such as the United States. The IRBM, which was tested on Sunday, could have range to hit the U.S. island territory of Guam in the Pacific Ocean.
Kim has reason to be concerned about a possible change of government in Seoul in the March presidential election. Conservatives behind presidential candidate Yoon Suk Yeol have a chance to oust the current ruling Democrats, with Lee Jae-myung at the forefront, who would succeed party colleague President Moon Jae-in if elected.
Analysts say a Yoon-led government could be expected to take a much tougher line on the Nordics compared to one led by Lee.
Yoon even planted the idea that South Korea could first strike against a presumed threat from the north before the south suffered a catastrophic loss.
“I think it’s a very important position for us to have,” Yoon said last week.
And while Moon has held summits with Kim, a Yoon government may well just ignore the regime of the North Korean leader, according to Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul.
“Conservatives are supporters, not so much of a tough position in relation to North Korea as of the maximum disregard for the very fact that another Korean state exists,” Lankov wrote on a blog for the Valdai Club, a Russian think tank.
Kim certainly got Moon’s attention with Sunday’s IRBM test.
The South Korean president said in a statement that the IRBM launch could be seen as a signal that the Kim regime is preparing to lift its moratorium on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear tests.
That moratorium has largely kept North Korea out of the international spotlight, but longer-range missile tests could reverse that trend.
‘No fire, no rage’
Washington’s response to North Korean launches in January is nowhere near its response to Pyongyang’s 2017 provocations, in which Donald Trump was President of the United States.
It must be frustrating for the first North Korean leader to meet face to face with a sitting U.S. president not once, but three times.
“For better or worse, Biden shows no fire and no rage,” Easley said.
Prior to his summits with Trump, analysts noted how Kim had finally managed to get a seat at the table, a position he took advantage of by testing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could theoretically reach the continental United States. But as that seat yielded no concessions from Washington, North Korea gradually resumed missile tests, albeit of a much shorter range.
Last year, Biden’s first in office, North Korea staged eight tests – none in the ranks of an ICBM. But Sunday’s IRBM test indicates that capacity is still in the Nordic region’s inventory, and analysts say testing one now could be a major blow to a Biden administration already shaken by perceived foreign policy mistakes such as the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the threat on war in Europe. by Russia gathering troops at its borders with Ukraine.
These situations are bound to play a role in congressional campaigns that could cause Biden’s Democrats to lose majorities in both the U.S. House and Senate and affect the president’s chances of achieving one of his goals for the remainder of his term.
A North Korean ICBM test could accelerate this trend and further damage Biden and his party’s foreign policy credentials.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons milestones
While some analysts suggest that North Korea’s current wave of tests leaves the door open for dialogue with Biden, others say it’s a question of when, not whether, Kim will order testing of stronger weapons.
They say the Kim regime always does what it says it will do. And if you look at the goals that were set at North Korea’s 8th Party Congress in January 2021, Kim has started ticking the boxes.
The first goal was to test a hypersonic warhead. It’s done, by this month at the latest.
Another goal was to test a submarine-fired missile. It was achieved in October.
Another goal was to “develop tactical nuclear weapons that can be used for various missions,” according to North Korean state media. One of this month’s tests has been on “tactical missiles”.
Since an ICBM was also on that list, a test is “just a matter of time,” said Duyeon Kim, adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).
North has previously tested an ICBM, but analysts say it could try testing a solid-fuel version. Solid fuel ICBMs can be made ready for action faster than the liquid fuels of Pyongyang to date.
“Last January, Kim Jong Un already unveiled goals to develop and test new ICBMs among other high-tech weapons as part of his five-year plan,” the CNAS analyst said.
“It does not matter what the United States does or does not do … Pyongyang is completely focused on meeting its nuclear weapons milestones,” she said.
With the Winter Olympics starting in a few days in the capital of North Korea’s main ally, China, the world can see Kim take a breather from the test and let her friends in Beijing bask in the international attention.
But that Pyongyang is increasing the pace of weapons testing again after the Games may suit Beijing just fine.
“For China, as North Korea’s military power increases, the United States needs to pay more attention to the Korean Peninsula so that it can be expected to have the effect of distracting attention from Taiwan in this region,” Park Won-gon said. Associate Professor of North Korean Studies at Ewha Women’s University.
If it does not give Kim a seat at the table, it gives him at least one foot inside the door – and all the more reason to keep the door swinging wider.