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Why is North Korea testing weapons again?

Frank Smith Seoul
March 30, 2021

After a long pause, North Korea is again testing the resolve of the international community by launching ballistic missiles. But what is Pyongyang's endgame?

A picture of a missile released by North Korea's official news agency, KCNA
A ballistic missile launched on March 25 in North KoreaImage: KCNA/REUTERS

North Korea is often referred to as the "hermit kingdom," because it cuts off communication with the outside world, and a highly censored media inhibits reporting on the country and its government.

But when it comes to developing nuclear weapons and missiles, Pyongyang has actually been quite clear about its intentions.

"North Korea laid out their future nuclear development road map. They've been saying this for a while, showing it in their parades and discussing it in the last party congress," senior fellow Go Myong-hyun of Seoul's Asan Institute for Policy Studies told DW.

In January, North Korea held the 8th Congress of the Workers Party of Korea, with thousands of delegates from across the country gathering in Pyongyang.

The event culminated with a parade featuring displays of advanced missiles and military technology. It also included a warning to the US and South Korea against large-scale joint military drills.

A military parade in Pyongyang, January 2021
A military parade in Pyongyang showcases missilesImage: KCNA/AP/picture alliance

When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met former US President Donald Trump in Singapore in 2018, they made a deal suspending large-scale joint US-South Korea military drills in exchange for Kim agreeing to a moratorium on long-range missile or nuclear tests.

The US side has refrained from holding the large-scale drills. But when South Korea and the US conducted 10 days of command post simulated war game drills earlier this March, it drew Pyongyang's ire.

"War games and hostility can never go with dialogue and cooperation," said Kim Jong Un's  sister, Kim Yo Jong, warning that the US "better refrain from causing a stink" if it "wants to sleep in peace for the coming four years."

North Korea tests Joe Biden

On Sunday, March 21, North Korea fired off two cruise missiles. Four days later it fired two short-range ballistic missiles, a type which violates UN Security Council sanctions.

Many Korea observers have considered the recent tests as being a message to the new administration of US President Joe Biden. However, Biden downplayed the cruise missile tests, calling them "nothing new."

"When the US downplayed the cruise missiles, North Korea realized they had to add to the dosage. Pyongyang's modus operandi is to start small, build up the momentum of their provocations … and give just the right amount of shock," said Go.

The timing of the tests came after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin were visiting US allies South Korea and Japan. On the agenda in Seoul was discussion of Washington's much anticipated review of US-North Korea policy.  

The same day as the ballistic missile tests, President Biden gave his first official press conference as US president.

When he was asked about his "red line" on North Korea, Biden responded: "if they choose to escalate, we will respond accordingly. But I'm also prepared for some form of diplomacy, but it has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization."

Christian Taaks, head of the Korea office at Germany's Friedrich Naumann Foundation, an NGO active inside North Korea for 18 years, told DW he views the tests as clear signaling to the Biden administration.

Taaks said North Korea timed the missile tests to coincide with Biden's press conference. Pyongyang had not responded to earlier overtures for dialogue issued by the Biden administration.

What are North Korea's capabilities?

Pyongyang also uses missile tests to test the capabilities of their weaponry, which officials have said involves a "new type" of missile.

"We have seen all of this new weapons technology in recent parades, but very few tests in the last year," said Taaks. "I think they just felt they had to complete a few tests before they go back to the negotiating table," he added.

North Korea has tested these types of missiles before, although it had been 11 months since its last short-range ballistic missile test.

But things get more complicated when coupled with intelligence suggesting that Pyongyang is also increasing its nuclear warhead stockpile.  

Nuclear complex in Yongbyon, North Korea, March 2
Recent satellite images of the Yongbyon nuclear complex show activity Image: 2021 Maxar Technologies/AP Photo/picture alliance

Asan's Go said that raising the level of deterrence to counter hundreds of potential North Korean nuclear warheads would require building more missile defense systems, bringing in more tactical nuclear weapons or even strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula.

"You're not just deterring North Korea, you're also effecting China's deterrence posture, which is going to make them mad, as we've seen with the THAAD missile deployment," Go said.

THAAD, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, were anti-ballistic missile batteries deployed to South Korea in 2017. Their installation raised concerns in South Korea of potentially sparking an arms control race in East Asia.

What comes next for the US and North Korea?

"What is needed is time for the US and North Korea to find their way back to the negotiating table … Washington needs to listen to North Korea, and North Korea will need to make clear its intention toward denuclearization," Hong Suk-hoon, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, told DW

However, given the recent rhetoric out of North Korea, and its continued development of nuclear weapons systems and warheads, many North Korea watchers believe Pyongyang will never give up their nuclear weapons, at least not enough to satisfy the US.

As with past US administrations, there is always optimism that negotiations with a new president can produce compromise. Pyongyang has much to gain with a deal that could suspend of eliminate crippling international sanctions.

Go believes the most likely possible outcome would be an intermediate arms reduction deal.

"North Korea's denuclearization is not going to happen anytime soon, at least not in a single US presidency. It's going to take a much longer time than that," he said.