Is North Korea’s Latest Missile Test a Turning Point in Regional Security?

‘A dangerous new normal' . . .

On Tuesday, North Korea tested a hypersonic missile off its eastern coast, the second such test in a week, marking a new milestone in its weapons capabilities. Hypersonic missiles are distinguished not only by their speed but also their manoeuvrability. While most missiles travel along a pre-set trajectory, hypersonic missiles can change course mid-flight, making them very difficult to track and intercept. While some experts say that Pyongyang still seems to be at an early stage in developing this technology, its recent progress will likely undermine the U.S. and South Korea’s nuclear deterrence systems, ushering in “a dangerous new normal” in regional security.

A ‘north wind’ blowing . . .

In March, South Koreans will elect a successor to their current president, Moon Jae-in. Moon is using his remaining months in office to try to re-build inter-Korean relations. Now, however, he may have to modify his pro-engagement stance to avoid a 'north wind,' a phrase referring to Korean voters flocking to the country's hardline conservative party in response to North Korean sabre-rattling. But conservative candidate Yoon Seok-youl may have overshot the moment by suggesting that as president, he would consider a pre-emptive strike against North Korean missile provocations – a comment his campaign subsequently tried to play down. It is unclear whether the candidate representing Moon’s party, Lee Jae-myung, will continue with Moon’s more dovish approach, especially as he will want to avoid being seen as too ‘soft’ on Pyongyang.

Will things get worse before they get better?

A question swirling around this week’s developments is where things go from here. Pyongyang has rebuffed the Biden Administration’s invitations to return to negotiations. However, the imposition of new U.S. sanctions today, and its argument for expanded UN sanctions, could ratchet up pressure on Pyongyang to resume dialogue. One long-time Korea expert has observed, however, an unfortunate pattern in regional diplomacy with breakthroughs occurring only after a point of dangerous brinkmanship. Pyongyang’s tendency to use weapons tests at the start of new presidential regimes in Seoul and Washington fits this pattern and foreshadows a rocky road ahead for the coming months.