GP Insights # 493, 28 March 2021
On 26 March, North Korea announced that it test-fired two ballistic missiles on 25 March after almost a year of passivity. The Korean Central News Agency of North Korea said: "The newly developed new-type tactical guided projectile is a weapon system whose warhead weight has been improved to be 2.5 tons with the use of the core technology of tactical guided projectile that was already developed."
On 26 March, South Korean President Moon Jae-in expressed concerns and disappointment with North Korea testing the missiles despite their continuous efforts for restarting dialogues with North Korea. He said: "Now is the time for South and North Korea and the US to ramp up efforts to continue talks. Any action that hampers the efforts is undesirable."
On the same day, US President Joe Biden said the US would respond appropriately if North Korea continues to escalate tensions, but it would still push for diplomacy. He said: "We are consulting with our allies and partners, and there will be responses if they choose to escalate." The Vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party in North Korea criticized Biden's comments, calling it an exercise of self-defence while warning the US of unpleasant reactions if such remarks continued.
What is the background?
First, the timing of the tests, amidst a US re-entry in East Asia. North Korea's missile tests come soon after the US officials visit Japan and South Korea. The Defense Secretary and Secretary of State of the United States chose Japan as their first cabinet-level foreign visit and visited South Korea for the first time since 2016. The Defense Secretary also visited India, who is a member of the QUAD. On 12 March, the US President reinforced the idea of free and open Indo-Pacific and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. These actions signify a definite return of the US in East Asia, which is substantially affected by North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
Second, Kim Jong-un's relations with the US Democrats. When Kim Jong-un became the Supreme Leader of North Korea in 2011, Democrats were in power in the United States under Barack Obama, who chose an aggressive North Korea approach. The Obama administration, unsuccessfully, tried to bring Kim to the negotiation table by imposing sanctions. When Donald Trump came to power, he succeeded in appeasing the North Korean regime; however, the talks could not continue. North Korea never had good relations with the Democrats. Now with the recent tests, the relation may worsen.
Third, North Korea's missile technology trajectory. North Korea has tested over 147 ballistic missile and six nuclear missiles since 1984. The last ICBM test took place in 2019. The missile technology has gradually improved to include nuclear payloads and short-range solid-fuel warheads. These tests pose a direct threat to South Korea, Japan and the US.
What does it mean?
How would North Korea respond to the Biden administration has been a critical question. Should the missile tests be seen as Pyongyang making a statement? North Korea's actions signify that denuclearization, which the US has been pushing for, is non-negotiable.
North Korea will continue to develop nuclear and missile technology despite UN and US sanctions. The tests will also determine US' approach towards North Korea under the Biden administration.