This summer, when Kim Jong-un conducted a set of short- to short/medium-range missile launches, he certainly got everyone’s attention. He also failed to interfere with the U.S.–South Korean command-post exercise and has not managed to budge President Trump from his “maximum pressure” policy on denuclearization. So why is North Korea carrying out these expensive firings? And beyond that, what are Kim’s strategic goals and how do these firings fit in with them?
One theory is that these are new weapons that need to be tested. Even if they were simply new versions of older models, development testing would be needed to ensure reliability. The exercise is just an excuse to carry out launches that were planned months ago.
This is a fairly logical explanation, but it may not be the whole story. The number of launches and the fact that so many occurred so close together indicates that something else is going on. If they were just tests, then a couple of firings followed by weeks of data analysis would be expected. So perhaps there is a political explanation?
Firing off these weapons has long been a way for Pyongyang to get attention. But by now it looks to much of the world like a child acting out. Combined with the usual ferocious rhetoric in the North Korean media, these actions just make them look silly.
The long-range missile tests, which are, for the moment, on hold, were serious enough to force the U.S., as well as Japan and South Korea, to take missile defense more seriously than they had before. Seoul’s belated decision to equip its Aegis Destroyers with U.S.-made SM-3 interceptors is welcome, as are the other moves President Moon is making toward improving the South’s military posture. Long-range nuclear-tipped missiles are indeed a catastrophic threat, but non-nuclear short- to medium-range missiles with high-explosive warheads might possibly have some limited tactical value but are, in the end, vengeance weapons similar to the Nazi V-2 or Saddam’s Scuds.
The propaganda effects of the short-range missile firings would be negligible were it not for the way they are used for partisan political purposes in the U.S. and elsewhere. When Trump (or Bush) is president, they are blamed on the GOP-controlled White House. When Obama (or Clinton) was in office, the Democrats got flak for not standing up to the Communist dictators. The North, of course, sees this and figures that it’s worth their effort just to see the Americans throw insults at each other.
For the U.S. and South Korea, the military problem is how to quickly use our conventional superiority to defeat North Korea without giving them the time or the opportunity to fire off any operational nuclear weapons they might have. As the North’s army gets weaker and weaker thanks to the nation’s economic collapse, the relative superiority of the allies keeps growing, and so does the relative importance of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal.
Kim Jong-un’s primary strategic goal is to stay in power. Nothing is more important to him and his entourage. The nuclear programs’ purpose is to ensure that if he did come under a serious threat, he would be able to launch a devastating strike that would, at the very least, destroy major parts of South Korea and Japan.
However, he must also know that if such a strike were launched, it would be the end of him and his regime. No bunker would be deep enough to protect him from the inevitable counterstrike. The nature of his weapons means that he is, to a large extent, self-deterred.
The political and propaganda benefits of the North Korean nuclear arsenal are considerable — or at least they might have been, if the North’s population were as isolated and brainwashed as they used to be. Unfortunately for Kim, the people who have long suffered under his family’s rule now are fully aware that South Korea is a prosperous, well-fed, and rich society that far surpasses them in every aspect of human development. Having a few nuclear weapons may be a matter of pride for a small cadre of North Korean party members, but one must suppose that a majority of the people up north would prefer full bellies and good jobs.
Kim might or might not know that his security services are becoming ever more corrupt and that the semi-legal free markets are now an essential part of normal North Korean life. These markets and the “Donju” entrepreneurs who operate them have, in many ways, escaped the control of the Communist Party. The DPRK is not as totalitarian as it once was, and this is bad news for Kim.
The North’s secondary strategic goal is to conquer the South and reunify Korea under Pyongyang. It would seem delusional for a poor, starving, weak, and badly managed nation to imagine it could take over a rich, strong, and advanced nation such as the Republic of Korea, but such things have happened before. South Vietnam was a better place for its people than North Vietnam ever was, but when the U.S. gave up, the determined Communists took over.
Without the use of WMD, the chances of the North defeating the South are close to zero. But if Kim imagines that if he started a war against the South, the Chinese and/or the Russians would jump in to help him, he might be tempted, in which case the short- to medium-range rockets and missiles he is now developing and deploying might be useful. Not only would they give him an advantage in the first few minutes of an attack, but they would make it difficult for the U.S. and ROK forces to mobilize and resupply. Drawing out the war for more than a couple of weeks would give Beijing and Moscow time to prepare to intervene and, more important, time to plan their move, if any, for maximum effect.
However, in reality neither China nor Russia wants to get into a major war with the U.S. for any reason, let alone for the sake of Kim Jong-un. The problem is that Kim may not know this. Like any dictator, he is not exactly surrounded by advisers who are grounded in reality. He may imagine that his nuclear weapons will protect him from the consequences of any aggressive actions he may take. Yet if he made any move to use his nuclear weapons, it would mean the complete and final end of his regime. There is even the possibility that he might find that his subordinates, no matter how superficially loyal to him they might be, would refuse to launch any nuclear weapons, particularly in a first-use scenario.
Finally, the Chinese decision to restart trade talks with the U.S. may mean that Beijing at this time no longer sees the DPRK as a useful tool for putting pressure on the U.S. The so-called working-level talks on denuclearization may restart soon; at least, that’s what a North Korean spokesman claimed. If they do, it will be an indication that Trump’s pressure policy is beginning to pay off, at least in the short term.
The U.S. president cannot yet say he has made real progress in getting Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. If he could, it would give a boost to his reelection chances. But there is no sign that Trump is desperate for a deal; he showed that when he walked out of the talks in Hanoi. If, during his forthcoming talks with South Korea’s President Moon, Trump were to give the impression that he wants or needs a deal more than Kim does, it would create real problems for him and for the U.S. and its allies.
Kim is in a strategic box. His regime is weakening and his military choices are limited to suicidal ones. A deal is his best option. The historical record is full of despots who made catastrophic decisions, so America and its allies must stay firm and stay alert.