As of Jan. 25, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has conducted five missile tests, including two hypersonic models. On Jan. 19, the Political Bureau of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s Central Committee convened and announced that it would discuss restarting previously suspended nuclear and long-range missile tests in light of the failure of the United States to abandon its hostile policy and military threats. Research institutions in the U.S. and Republic of Korea are predicting that the DPRK may conduct long-range missile tests this year.
The situation on the Korean Peninsula, which has been generally calm since 2018, has shown recent signs of renewed tension. An inherent imbalance will make it difficult to keep things as they are for long. It would be extremely detrimental to the DPRK to maintain the status quo indefinitely. At present, U.S.-led international sanctions against the DPRK have not relaxed but have tightened. Most of the foreign trade, foreign capital and foreign exchange needed for the DPRK’s economic development have been cut off.
In today’s globalized international community, if the DPRK remains closed for an extended period, the regime can at best barely survive by self-reliance, and there is no way to talk about long-term goals, such as developing the economy and improving people’s lives. Pyongyang has repeatedly admitted in recent years that sanctions have caused it to fail to achieve its economic development goals.
The growing gap in economic and social development between the DPRK and its neighbors is bound to bring increasing competitive pressure. It is of particular note that the DPRK and the ROK have long been divided and have always faced zero-sum competitive pressure. The ROK’s leap toward becoming a midrange power in the areas of national governance, diplomacy and the military based on its economic takeoff placed great competitive pressure on the DPRK. Not only is ROK far ahead economically but its military advantage over the DPRK is becoming increasingly apparent.
While the rest of the world tends to focus on the DPRK’s nuclear and missile progress, the ROK’s rampant military progress is overlooked. In terms of nuclear weapons, the ROK has an extended U.S. deterrent, no less than the DPRK’s nuclear deterrent. In conventional military competition, the ROK has been more aggressive than the DPRK. Military spending increased by a record 36.9 percent under the Moon Jae-in administration, and the medium-term defense plan for 2021-25 projects an average annual increase of 6.1 percent.
In the 2020 Global Firepower ranking, the ROK jumped to sixth place from 11th in 2015, while the DPRK dropped to 25th place from 18th in 2019. In 2021, the Republic of Korea commissioned its first domestic fifth-generation fighter jet (the KF-21), launched a missile from a submarine and put into operation its first indigenously developed 3,000-ton conventional ballistic missile submarine, the Dosan Ahn Chang-ho.
With the U.S. lifting the ban on the ROK’s missile range, the ROK has all the medium- and long-range missiles that the DPRK is so proud to have. In addition, with its abundant capital and industrial capabilities, the ROK has produced more technologically advanced missiles and even exports them to other developed countries. The ROK is also actively deploying light aircraft carriers, submarines and early-warning radars.
In the above situation, the DPRK is bound to want to break the status quo and achieve the improvement of its composite national strength based on economic development as soon as possible to catch up with its neighboring countries.
In 2018, the DPRK announced that it would focus on economic development. The main goal — with nuclear weapons ensuring its national security — is to break diplomatic isolation and sanctions through a diplomatic offensive and then achieve economic takeoff with some degree of reform and opening-up. The DPRK’s leader repeatedly mentioned his urgent desire to achieve economic development when he met with the U.S. and ROK heads of state.
The U.S. has a clear understanding of the DPRK’s intentions and predicament. As the proverb goes, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. The more the DPRK is eager to break the status quo, the more the U.S. thinks it is advantageous to maintain it. The U.S. is not eager to reach a substantive deal with the DPRK and is using delay tactics. Under the current detente, the United States does not have to touch the hot potato of the DPRK nuclear issue, which would bring domestic political costs. This makes it possible for it diplomatically to focus on China, Russia, the Middle East and other priorities.
Moreover, the U.S. believes that time is on its side, and that as long as it adheres to the existing international sanctions framework, the DPRK will have no backbone for economic or military development. And even if Pyongyang were to develop nuclear weapons, those cannot be used as food. The DPRK will continue to face a crisis of collapse in the long run. Therefore, the U.S. has kept a low posture in response to the DPRK’s continual shows of force over the past two years, even though it has violated the UN Security Council’s sanctions resolution, mostly taking it lightly and downplaying it, rather than waving the moral banner of unconditional dialogue.
On the other hand, the Biden administration has not relaxed. It has maintained the international sanctions system against the DPRK, strengthening the U.S.-ROK and U.S.-Japan-ROK military alliances and insisting on the principled position of denuclearizing the DPRK. It can be said that all the U.S. words are soft but all its actions are tough.
Unless the DPRK bursts out, it will perish by inaction. The DPRK is bound to move to alleviate the dangerous situation, as the rope of sanctions is tightening as it struggles. There are but two choices. One is to make substantial progress on denuclearization in exchange for the lifting of the corresponding sanctions; the other is to escalate a military show of strength to poke at the nerves of the U.S. and its neighbors, with new bargaining chips to force the international community to recognize the DPRK as a nuclear power and lift sanctions.
As Pyongyang perceives its interests, the former is the second-best option as a last resort, while the latter is easier to attempt first. That is why the DPRK has launched hypersonic missiles — the kind of forward-looking weapons that military powers are still figuring out. However, it is widely believed in the U.S. and ROK military communities that the DPRK’s test launch of the weapons was more political and diplomatic than military, and that the attempt was not advanced at the technical and operational levels. So it did not much irritate U.S. nerves.
The U.S. and ROK believe that, after all, the development of advanced weapons requires the support of manufacturing, materials and guidance, as well as a huge long-term investment and a continuous trial and error process. Ultimately, the effort must be in step with the country’s economic development. With the U.S. indifference, Pyongyang may attempt to ratchet up tensions to increase pressure on the U.S. This is why the meeting of the DPRK’s Political Bureau on Jan. 19 may have marked a restart of nuclear missile testing.