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PoliticsNorth Korea

North Korea provocations — What does Kim Jong Un want?

October 11, 2022

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has overseen a sharp increase in missile tests recently. Another nuclear test is expected in the coming weeks.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects military exercises at an undisclosed location in North Korea, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022
There is widespread anticipation that Kim will order another underground nuclear test at the Punggye-ri testing groundImage: picture alliance/AP/Korean Central News Agency

North Korea announced on Monday that the missile it had launched over northern Japan on October 2 was a "new-type ground-to-ground intermediate-range ballistic missile," while state media reported the same day that the nation's dictator Kim Jong Un had recently observed exercises by his tactical nuclear units.   

The two weeks of exercises by the North Korean military involved nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, warplanes and other assets to practice possible strikes on South Korean and US targets. There is widespread anticipation that Kim will order another underground nuclear test at the Punggye-ri testing ground.  

Pyongyang insisted that the flurry of missile launches and military exercises are defensive and merely a reaction to joint drills off the Korean Peninsula involving naval units of the US, South Korea and Japan.  

More aggressive stance 

Analysts say that after several years of relative restraint, with a limited number of missile launches and the last nuclear test five years ago, North Korea may be returning to a more aggressive stance towards its rivals.

Events in other parts of the world will not have been overlooked in Pyongyang. 

"North Korea has learned lessons from what we see happening in Ukraine," said Dan Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University.  

"They can clearly see the utility and importance of having a nuclear weapons capability as Russia is using them in Ukraine as a deterrent to a NATO attack, but while they can be very effective in deterring enemies, nuclear weapons are not effective at all in compelling an enemy to do something," he told DW.  

"The North's political objectives have been pretty consistent over time and they remain the same today," Pinkston pointed out. "Fundamentally, North Korea says it is still fighting the revolution and will continue to do so until it has 'final victory,' which would be a united peninsula under North Korean control."

Most immediately, it is exerting pressure to seek the lifting of international sanctions imposed on the regime for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, as well as to be recognized as a nuclear power, Pinkston said, stressing that Pyongyang clearly believes — rightly or wrongly — that such recognition would bestow prestige and respect on the regime.  

"Over the longer term, it wants to terminate US security alliances in the region, particularly with South Korea and Japan, and for US forces to leave northeast Asia."

'Show of force' 

Min Tae-eun, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, agrees that the recent missile launches and other military drills were designed to be a "show of force" to the US and South Korea, as well as a demonstration of national might to a domestic audience.

But it goes beyond that, she believes. 

"They are not simply sending a message to the international community; this is an expression that they are a nuclear weapons state, and that is more serious," she said.  

"They have the confidence to say they are a nuclear weapons state and that even if the international community will not give them that recognition, they are still going their own way." 

An F/A-18E Super Hornet launches from the flight deck of the U.S. Navy's only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), as it steams in formation with the Republic of Korea (ROK) navy ROKS Seoae Ryu Seong-ryong (DDG 993) and ROKS Gwanggaeto the Great (DDH 971), in waters east of the Korean Peninsula
Pyongyang says its missile tests are merely a reaction to joint drills involving naval units of the US, South Korea and JapanImage: Louis Thompson Staats IV/U.S. Navy/ABACAPRESS/picture alliance

Min stressed that it is important to identify the ways in which the North changes its behavior in the international arena over the longer term. 

"The US and South Korea have no viable options for changing North Korea at the moment and I think we can say that international sanctions have been a failure," she said. "What can Washington or Seoul do when the next nuclear test happens?" 

Resolve not weakening 

Pinkston noted that far from weakening resolve in the region, North Korea's recent bombast has had the opposite effect. In addition to more multilateral military exercises, including the deployment earlier this month of German fighter jets to carry out drills with their Japanese counterparts, Kim's aggression has served to bring South Korea and Japan closer together.

Two years ago, the governments in Seoul and Tokyo were hardly on speaking terms and there was little prospect of security cooperation, but warships from the two nations' navies have this month taken part in anti-submarine warfare drills with the US. 

That new-found willingness to cooperate is in part a result of the growing threat posed by North Korea, as well as the growing awareness that China has more territorial ambitions in the region. Events in Ukraine also show that peace cannot be taken for granted.  

"But, when it comes down to it, the North's nuclear threat is empty," Pinkston said. "If Kim ever gave the order to carry out a nuclear attack, it would be suicide. The only value those weapons have is as a deterrent to an attack, and I do not see any other country planning to attack North Korea."  

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea