Why North Korea is ramping up missile tests again

North Korea’s second missile test in a week is increasing the pressure on President Joe Biden to respond, inching the nuclear-armed state further up the administration’s long list of global challenges to address.

Officials in the US, South Korea, and Japan announced that North Korea had launched two short-range ballistic missiles at around 7 am local time Thursday (Wednesday evening in America). The missiles flew nearly 40 miles high and traveled around 280 miles, landing harmlessly in the Sea of Japan, outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, which is considered an extension of the country’s sovereignty out into the waters.

This test was far more provocative than North Korea’s test of two cruise missiles this past weekend. That launch did not violate UN Security Council resolutions, whereas Thursday’s test, which involved ballistic missiles, did. Further, the cruise missiles fired over the weekend plunged in the Yellow Sea to the west of the Korean Peninsula; the missiles on Thursday were fired eastward — in the direction of one of Washington’s regional friends.

Why is North Korea suddenly testing all these missiles?

Experts are split. One potential reason is that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wants to slowly ratchet up pressure on Biden and get his attention.

“North Korea usually begins its new military threats-cum-psychological warfare cycle through graduated escalation,” Sung-Yoon Lee, an expert on Pyongyang’s politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, told me.

“The apparent start of the new cycle means Kim Jong Un, having determined that the heady days of summit pageantry with Donald Trump are over, needs to re-weaponize his weirdness,” he added.

In other words, the North Korean leader wants the tests to bother Biden so much that the US engages in some kind of diplomacy with North Korea to stop the launches. Once at the negotiating table, Pyongyang would seek an end to US sanctions on the country before agreeing to dismantle (at least some parts of) its nuclear program, while Washington would push for the opposite — North Korea first verifiably dismantling at least some parts of its nuclear program before the US lifts any sanctions.

That broad standoff has plagued US-North Korean relations for decades, but it’s particularly irksome to Kim right now. The sanctions hurt his country’s economy, which the dictator has promised to improve, and are especially biting during the Covid-19 pandemic. His new round of testing, then, is a message to the White House: End the sanctions, or America’s relations with North Korea are about to get a lot more tense.

“With the United States hinting that it will seek to tighten the sanctions regime, North Korea will be looking to expand its arsenal by ramping up testing,” said Jean Lee, director of the Korea program at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, DC.

The other potential explanation experts gave me for the recent tests has less to do with the US and more to do with simply improving North Korea’s military capabilities.

“These launches are not a cry for attention, nor are they a cry for help with North Korea’s broken economy. Such launches are a sign of North Korea’s clear determination to continue advancing its ballistic-missile programs as part of making good on the ambitious plans for North Korea’s weapons programs,” said Markus Garlauskas, the US national intelligence officer for North Korea from 2014 to 2020.

Getting stronger militarily, after all, was a promise Kim made to top North Korean officials and his people during a January meeting. “If these [launches] go unchecked by the international community, this is likely to lead to launches of bigger and more capable systems, including those capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads,” added Garlauskas, who is now at the Atlantic Council think tank in DC.

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Whatever the reason, though, it’s important to note that Kim could have chosen to be even more aggressive than he has been.

North Korea’s tests are troubling, but it could have been much worse

North Korea has many more powerful weapons it could test, namely big new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), or even a nuclear device. Testing any of those would surely lead to a more forceful reaction by the Biden administration.

Experts say such a brazen move isn’t likely any time soon. Instead, Pyongyang has two goals in mind with these lower-level tests. First, the tests simply let Kim check to make sure the weapons actually work as intended. Second, avoiding testing the flashier weapons helps keep tensions from spiraling out of control even as they ratchet up. In effect, the tests are partly calibrated to get Biden’s attention but not draw his ire.

The question now is how Biden will react. Trump implicitly made a deal with North Korea while he was in office: Test anything you want as long as it’s not an ICBM or a nuclear weapon that could threaten America.

But some experts suspect Biden won’t be as forgiving. We may get a clue to his thinking on Thursday during a highly anticipated press conference, where reporters in the White House briefing will likely ask him his thoughts on the tests. If not, the administration says it’s in the final stages of its North Korea policy review, and national security adviser Jake Sullivan is expected to discuss its outcomes with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts.

We’re nearing the start of the next stage in the decades-long saga between the US and North Korea. Pyongyang just wanted to make sure to get a word in before it begins and catch the new administration off guard.

“As Mike Tyson said, ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,’” Fletcher’s Lee told me.