Murky Motives Behind Flurry of North Korean Missile Tests

Déjà vu all over again?

On Sunday, North Korea continued its blistering pace of weapons tests – seven in the space of a month - with the firing of an intermediate-range ballistic missile, the most powerful nuclear-capable missile it has tested since 2017. Pyongyang’s motives have been subject to differing interpretations. One is that it is keeping to a familiar playbook: ratcheting up international tensions, then using the crisis to extract concessions, namely, sanctions relief. Another is more nuanced: that it is fine-tuning its weapons capabilities but not egregiously provoking its neighbours. In this interpretation, Pyongyang wants to signal to the U.S. that it is militarily formidable while avoiding a unified international response in which even Beijing and Moscow would tighten sanctions against North Korea.

Risky gambit . . .

The implications of Pyongyang’s latest gambit, especially vis-à-vis the U.S., are also uncertain. The Biden Administration’s approach thus far has been a mix of inattention and doubling down on sanctions. For example, its North Korea envoy is part-time – he concurrently serves as U.S. ambassador to Indonesia. Some analysis also suggests that Pyongyang’s missile tests have lost their potency to prompt the desired response. And if personnel appointments are any indication, Biden may have sent a signal of his own by hinting that he would nominate Philip Goldberg as Washington’s next ambassador to Seoul. Goldberg is a hardliner on North Korea and was previously the Obama Administration’s co-ordinator of UN sanctions against the country.

Wrong remedy . . .

Even if Pyongyang succeeds in getting the international community to soften its sanctions regime, North Korea still faces mounting shortages of food and medical supplies. In 2019, the UN estimated that 11 million North Koreans – 40 per cent of the population – were undernourished. The strict COVID-related border closures Pyongyang imposed in early 2020 have worsened that situation by cutting off imports from China. Last month, a freight train arrived from China, the first in more than a year, and some UN-supplied relief is awaiting distribution. But even North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un conceded months ago that the food situation was “tense.” Whether ramped-up missile tests help him dig himself out of that hole is yet to be seen.