On March 24, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time in more than four years. The launch ended the DPRK’s suspension of nuclear and ICBM tests that it had announced in April 2018, violating several UN Security Council resolutions, as well as a series of agreements or matters o consensus in 2018 between the U.S. and the DPRK, and between the DPRK and the Republic of Korea. The test was said to have crossed a red line set by the U.S., which, along with the ROK, Japan and other countries, strongly condemned the DPRK. Thus, the situation on the Korean Peninsula once again entered a new cycle of tension.
The DPRK’s missile launch was not a surprise. Recently, the U.S. and ROK defense and intelligence agencies predicted in public that the DPRK would soon conduct a long-range missile test, or even a nuclear test. The DPRK’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said at the sixth Political Bureau Meeting of the Eighth Central Committee on Jan. 19 that he would examine the need to restart the suspended nuclear missile tests. The DPRK conducted tests on Feb. 27 and March 5 under the pretext of satellite development.
The DPRK launched a new ICBM after more than four years, mainly with the following intentions and background:
First, it wanted to break the current passive situation. In the more than four years since the DPRK announced the suspension of nuclear missile tests (in early 2018), the U.S. has not given it compensatory measures. After the breakup of the Hanoi summit in early 2019, the DPRK nuclear issue was put on hold. The U.S. has been unwilling to expend diplomatic resources on it and has largely ignored a series of military shows of strength by the DPRK over the past two years.
As the U.S.-led sanctions regimen against the DPRK has been maintained for a long time, the DPRK’s economy and people’s lives have been in exceptional difficulty. If this continues long-term, it clearly benefits the U.S. to the detriment of the DPRK.
It is widely believed that nuclear and long-range missile tests by the DPRK are a U.S. red line. The DPRK hopes to force the United States to pay attention to the its demands and break the current deadlock.
Second, the current international timing, given the Russia-Ukraine conflict, is more favorable to the DPRK. Previously, it was widely speculated that the DPRK might be more cautious on nuclear and missile issues for fear of more sanctions. However, the unexpected outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict earlier this year has left the major powers with no time for the DPRK’s nuclear issue. The U.S., preoccupied with the Russia-Ukraine issue, is not focusing on the DPRK nuclear issue.
In the Security Council, the U.S. and Russia are now in a serious confrontation, and it’s difficult for Russia to cooperate with the U.S. on additional sanctions against the DPRK. As the U.S. continues to suppress China, it is also difficult for China to agree with the U.S. proposition of focusing on sanctions to resolve the DPRK nuclear issue. Instead China is advocating attention to the DPRK’s security and development concerns. The ROK is in a period of transition between old and new presidents, and the entire country is busy with a series of struggles, including the presidential office relocation, personnel appointments and policy disagreements. All this makes it difficult for the country to respond substantively to the DPRK.
Third, the DPRK wants to give the new ROK government a kick in the pants. The ROK has just elected a new government, led by Yoon Suk-yeol, whose policy tone toward the DPRK emphasizes “principles” and demands that the DPRK give up its nuclear weapons before being compensated. The new government uses mostly the same diplomatic and security teams as the old Lee Myung-bak administration, which have advocated a tough policy toward the DPRK. The DPRK’s ICBM test is also a stress test and an early demonstration for the new government.
The test will have far greater political than military implications for Northeast Asia. In recent years, the U.S. has not seemed very concerned about the actual threat capability of the DPRK’s nuclear missiles but rather believes that missiles made with the DPRK’s comprehensive national power and industrial capacity are still a long way from actually threatening the U.S. mainland. For this reason, the U.S. has turned a blind eye to the DPRK’s hypersonic missile and submarine-launched missile tests over the past two years.
However, the U.S. has recently taken the DPRK nuclear issue more seriously. American defense and intelligence authorities have announced in detail that the DPRK will resume long-range missile and nuclear tests, but instead of rushing to launch proposals to avert a crisis — such as resuming negotiations as soon as possible and showing goodwill toward the DPRK — the U.S. has imposed new sanctions and strengthened military and diplomatic communication with Japan and the ROK.
The U.S. is currently not willing to seek a pragmatic deal with the DPRK on the nuclear issue, nor is it likely to use force; it is more likely to take the opportunity to use the nuclear issue to increase pressure on China. With the newly elected conservative government in the ROK being more pro-U.S. and tougher on the DPRK, the U.S. is likely to use the DPRK nuclear issue to strengthen U.S.-Japan-South Korea cooperation and the U.S.-ROK alliance — and even increase its military deployments, such as SAD, in the peninsula and push the ROK to join the four-nation mechanism or the Five Eyes alliance. If this happens, it will certainly degrade the prosperity and stability of Northeast Asia and intensify the confrontation between camps.
At present, compared with other regions of the world, stability and prosperity are the biggest advantages of the East Asia region and the greatest common interest of East Asian countries. The DPRK nuclear issue should be resolved by peaceful dialogue.
The U.S. and other countries should consider the security and development needs of the DPRK, and the DPRK should adhere to the line of economic development established at the Third Plenary Session of the Seventh Central Committee, continuously improve its composite national strength and make a positive gesture on denuclearization. Continued opposition and confrontation are something that most countries in East Asia do not want to see.