National Security & Defense

What North Korea’s First Missile Test during the Biden Administration Means

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the conference of the Central Military Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea. May 23, 2020. (KCNA/Reuters)
The Kim regime is still intent on improving its arsenal — and testing its enemies.

North Korea conducted tests of short-range cruise missiles last weekend, demonstrating its continued willingness to improve its diverse and growing missile arsenal. While U.S. officials have confirmed there were short-range tests, they have since downplayed their significance and said that they did not violate United Nations Security Council Resolutions (UNSCRs). According to South Korean official Ha Tae-keung, the United States and South Korea had detected the cruise-missile launches but chose not to make the tests immediately public.

The tests were the first North Korean missile tests of the Biden administration and came on the heels of the combative U.S.–China meeting in Alaska, and after Dictator Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jun, condemned joint military drills between the U.S. and South Korea. The potential replacement for Kim, should something happen to incapacitate the morbidly obese dictator, said that if the Biden administration “wants to sleep in peace for the coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink.” Nevertheless, President Biden literally laughed off media questions about the missile tests.

As far as provocative missile tests go, these are relatively mild, and probably more of a flex meant to intimidate the South Korean government than to push too hard against the United States. But they should not be viewed as insignificant. The rogue state with nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach Americans is steadily improving its military capabilities, while issuing threats and refusing to engage in talks with the new U.S. administration. Still, it is notable that North Korea chose to not launch ballistic missiles, even shorter-range ones, which could threaten U.S. bases in the region as well as U.S. allies with nuclear warheads, and would violate UNSCRs.

When President Trump entered office, Kim was repeatedly testing nuclear weapons and missiles, flying them over Japanese territory and threatening to shoot at Guam where U.S. forces were stationed. Kim had tested more missiles than his father and grandfather combined, and twice in 2017 tested his regime’s Hwasong-14 intercontinental-ballistic-missile (ICBM). The possession and testing of such a missile indicated that North Korea could likely deliver a nuclear warhead all the way to the American Midwest.

In the wake of North Korea’s belligerent ICBM tests and nuclear threats, President Trump made his now famous threat. He said, “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” The threat was unlike the boilerplate comments from previous presidents who had promised to keep “all options on the table.” Trump was, in a word, believable. It was that threat of preemptive military attack that convinced Kim to cease the tests and to engage in talks.

Since the 2018 summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, North Korea has not conducted any long-range missile tests or nuclear tests. And to the Trump administration’s credit, it did not lower its demand of complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear-missile program, nor did it relax sanctions.

Yet the defusing of tensions between the two countries, and the ceasing of the most threatening tests, did come at a cost. The flashy summits between the president of the United States and the leader of one of the world’s poorest and most-inhumane nations were a propaganda boon for North Korea. Moreover, to convince Kim to jumpstart stalled engagement, Trump ended annual large-scale military exercises with South Korea — crucial exercises meant to demonstrate U.S. commitment to regional allies and to sufficiently prepare U.S. military forces for action if North Korea were to launch an attack.

Even so, North Korea’s Kim was not satisfied without sanctions relief. In 2019, Pyongyang agitated for more concessions by conducting tests of shorter-range ballistic missiles, which without question violated UNSCRs, and demonstrated improvements in Pyongyang’s ballistic-missile capabilities. The ballistic-missile tests also revealed North Korea’s improvements in its ability to launch solid-fuel missiles, which can be launched in a matter of minutes, giving the U.S. side much less time to prepare a response.

But Trump said that the tests did not violate the spirit of the agreement he made with Kim in Singapore. Even so, the tests were understandably unacceptable to Japan. Shortly thereafter, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe emphasized the seriousness of the tests by pointing out that they had violated UNSCRs. Between down-playing the ballistic-missile tests that could hit our ally and U.S. forces, and ending the large-scale readiness exercises, Trump’s decisions possibly weakened U.S. assurances to our critical U.S. allies. That is significant for multiple reasons: Putting doubts in our allies’ minds about our nuclear assurances could cause them to consider more seriously acquiring their own nuclear weapons; moreover, the U.S. needs the close military cooperation of our allies to deter our greatest foe, China. Breaking with Japan — perhaps our most important ally when it comes to deterring Chinese aggression — over North Korea, is shortsighted. The closer the United States can cooperate militarily with Japan and align our security goals in the region, the better.

And, despite whatever good the Trump administration’s approach toward North Korea did, Kim did not direct the dismantlement of a single component of North Korea’s nuclear-missile program. In fact, reports indicate that he still grew his nuclear-weapons capacity.

Again, the Trump administration’s goal for North Korea was a worthy one, and Biden secretary of state Antony Blinken has maintained it, calling for the “complete denuclearization of North Korea” during a visit to Japan last week. It remains the right goal, and he clarified it from the right location with the right ally. But if Kim didn’t denuclearize in response to Trump, an unconventional president who issued credible threats about preemptively eliminating Kim’s nuclear program, and then just as easily had no qualms about flattering Kim and promising him a bright economic future for his country if he abandoned his nuclear program, President Biden is unlikely to be more successful. Indeed, Biden can offer Kim only conventional responses. He certainly can’t offer anything believable by way of the proverbial carrots beyond sanctions relief. And sanctions relief should remain completely off the table and instead should be significantly increased for North Korea’s missile tests that violated UNSCRs. Biden should officially keep the military option on the table, of course, but who would believe Biden would preemptively attack North Korea?

Realistically, in addition to increasing sanctions, the Biden administration should ramp back up joint military exercises, and significantly increase U.S. homeland and regional missile defenses. The Trump administration failed to implement a serious plan to improve U.S. missile defenses in its term, all the while North Korea improved its nuclear-missile program. The United States should expect China to object to U.S. regional and possibly homeland missile-defense deployments. They economically punished South Korea for accepting U.S. missile defenses already. But now is not the time to balk under Chinese pressure as previous Democratic administrations have under Russian pressure. Missile defense is a necessary component of U.S. deterrence and with no good options for dealing with the North Korean threat, a robust homeland missile defense is imperative.

General Glen D. VanHerck, commander of the United States Northern Command, recently told Congress that North Korea might begin flight-testing an improved ICBM design in the near future, ending Kim’s agreement with Trump. And when that happens, unlike it did with the recent cruise missile tests, the Biden administration will be unable to downplay or laugh them off.


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