ASPI Note: How To Understand North Korea’s ICBM
March 21st, 2022 by Daniel Russel | 22/16
As President Joe Biden headed to Europe on March 24 for urgent meetings on Ukraine, North Korea — the DPRK — launched its largest-ever intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) into Japanese waters off Hokkaido. Kim Jong-un personally supervised the launch — the first ICBM since 2017 — wearing shades, a leather jacket, and announcing he was “fully ready for confrontation with U.S. imperialists” and claiming the missile — called the Hwasong-17 — could deliver a nuclear warhead anywhere in the continental United States. The U.S. responded by sanctioning two people and three entities involved in acquiring missile parts and technology in North Korea and Russia.
In 2018, North Korea unilaterally halted nuclear and ICBM tests in a charm offensive that included Kim’s sister attending the Winter Olympics in South Korea and Kim’s first summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Kim declared at the time that North Korea’s programs had developed to the point where Pyongyang “no longer needs any nuclear test or test launches of intermediate- and intercontinental-range ballistic missiles.” Nevertheless, the DPRK’s research, development, and production of nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles continued as part of the DPRK’s effort to build a larger and more diverse arsenal of WMD.
Following the failure of the Trump-Kim summit diplomacy and throughout the North’s pandemic lockdown, Kim flaunted advanced weapons systems at military parades and other spectacles. In January of this year, North Korea upped the ante with an unprecedented spate of seven short and medium range missile tests, warning it might resume ICBM launches as well. In response, the United States convened a UN Security Council meeting, but China and Russia rejected a U.S. proposal for punitive measures against Pyongyang. North Korean tests were halted while China hosted the Winter Olympics for much of February.
This March, South Korea elected a conservative President, Yoon Suk-yeol, who promised to restore a harder line towards North Korea than his conciliatory predecessor. Although Yoon does not take office until May 10, the South Korean military responded to the ICBM launch by test-firing an array of ballistic and air-to-ground missiles to demonstrate it has the "capability and readiness" to strike missile launch sites in the DPRK with precision.
- Kim is opportunistically exploiting the world’s focus on the Ukraine crisis, calculating that Washington may be more willing to make concessions in return for peace and quiet on the Korean Peninsula while it contends with Russian aggression. Kim also understands full well that in the current environment, Russia and China can be counted on to block U.S. action at the UN.
- Over the last few months, North Korea has also tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile, a surface-to-air defense system, cruise missiles, and a hypersonic missile. This adds up to a diversified arsenal of nuclear and other weapons that can survive a first strike and can penetrate alliance missile defense systems.
- A U.S. intelligence annual threat assessment in March had warned that the DPRK was laying the groundwork for escalation in 2022 and could be expected to test ICBM’s and other systems for both technical and tactical reasons. North Korean engineers need data on weapons’ performance and Kim seeks to put pressure on Washington and the incoming South Korean government.
- Paradoxically, Beijing may also be a target for North Korea’s missile messaging. North Korea’s overwhelming dependency on China runs counter to the country’s doctrine of “juche” self-reliance and its historic fear of becoming a pawn of China. These tests convey that North Korea is an independent actor with the ability to cause serious trouble for Beijing and that China’s aid does not give it leverage.
The Bottom Line:
- North Korea tends to cycle between a provocative “fire-and-fury” phase to raise tensions, and a de-escalatory dialogue phase to pocket whatever Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo may be willing to pay to calm things down.
- COVID-19 may have interrupted this cycle, but the ICBM launch may be a harbinger of a resumption in destabilizing escalation.
- North Korea has regularly rebuffed U.S. attempts to negotiate — even after the Singapore Summit where Trump made major concessions. And it may only be after more threatening behavior that Pyongyang shifts gears (as it did in 2018) and show interest in diplomacy — albeit on its terms.
- North Korea considers its nuclear and missile arsenal as a source of geopolitical strength. Its goal in negotiations is not denuclearization, but three interlocked priorities: international acceptance of North Korea’s status as a nuclear state; the withdrawal of UN and unilateral sanctions, and withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea — and the region.
- Ignoring Kim is not an option, and there may be no good options for denuclearization at this point, particularly when the U.S. and China are so badly estranged. But there are plenty of bad ones — like lifting sanctions or cancelling defense training to placate Pyongyang.
- The Biden administration seems unlikely to make those mistakes given its commitment to denuclearization, its emphasis on alliance unity, the resolve shown in the Russia-Ukraine crisis, and the imminent prospect of a conservative realist as South Korean’s President.
- Read about Cyber — North Korea’s ultimate weapon of mass destruction — in ASPI’s report, “Future Scenarios.”