MS Risk Blog

North Korea: Craving Attention

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Following Kim Jong Un’s 10th anniversary in power, the North Korean regime has stepped up its missile game with 7 missile tests in January 2022, the biggest show of strength since 2017. UN resolutions prohibit North Korea, which is largely politically isolated, from testing such missiles, which, depending on their design, can also carry a nuclear warhead. In fact, the missiles that have been used in January prove that North Korea has been capable of improving its missile technology. The regime has been sanctioned over the years and its economy has been moreover significantly affected by the self-isolation of the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. While some analysts see these exercises as part of the North Korean military’s winter exercises, there are three other explanations for this trend.

The main explanation is that North Korea wants to stay as a relevant actor in the international arena. With these tests the regime aims at projecting an image of self-sufficient country, capable of developing advanced technology and a relevant actor that can force changes in the regional and international balance of power. In 2022 there will be important events in the region, including the Beijing winter Olympics in February and the presidential elections in South Korea in March. If the conservative candidate Yoon Suk Yeol won the elections in South Korea, he would be expected to take a harder line against the North Korean regime, probably meaning a maximum disregard for the very fact of the existence of another Korean state. Kim Jon Un’s absence of an announcement on North Korea’s foreign policy direction in 2022 has been interpreted as a way of having “strategic flexibility” amid these uncertainties. Internationally, the fact that the US is paying more attention to the crisis in Ukraine or China-Taiwan relations is felt by the regime as a disdain. As a response, North Korea has fired an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM), which would be able to strike the US territory of Guam in the Pacific Ocean. These tests could harm Biden’s foreign policy reputation, already damaged by US missteps in Afghanistan and the threat posed by Russia in Europe.

A second explanation is that North Korea seeks US concessions. The missiles are a rejection of US sanctions on the country and a rejection of Biden’s proposal on diplomatic talks, which have been seen as insufficient. In 2021 Kim rejected US offers to negotiate on denuclearisation, talks that have been stalled since Kim-Trump’s summit in Hanoi in 2019, arguing that the US had a “hostile” attitude towards NK. North Korea would like the US to lift economic sanctions, withdraw US troops in South Korea and suspend South Korea-US military drills in the area. The strategic flexibility that the regime is following in 2022 allows them to recalibrate North Korea’s strategy to exert pressure on the US. At the moment, exerting maximum pressure is seen as the only way of pushing the US to make concessions and start negotiations again. This is because the North Korean regime does not consider itself in a weak position vis-à-vis the White House. First of all, Kim Jong-un believes that he can achieve no greater gains through negotiation than showing his operational nuclear deterrent. Second, his regime has gambled that his ballistic tests alone will not be capable of triggering an American intervention.

However, it is not clear that Pyongyang is adequately managing the risk of accidental escalation. The hypothesis of a US attack in response to a missile launch cannot be totally excluded, since Joe Biden must give guarantees to his Asian allies. This scenario would have serious consequences, especially in a tense context between the US administration and China, North Korea’s main supporter. Ultimately, the behaviour of the Americans raises questions about their ability to propose a readable road map for the Korean peninsula. The organisation of a negotiation that establishes both the technical parameters of an agreement on North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic programs and the first steps towards a return to regional stability (a condition for the “freezing of the dangerous situation” to lead to a long-term solution), seems unattainable at this point. Not only is the US administration incapable of orchestrating Biden’s strategy (if he has one like his predecessor), but the US’s geopolitical weakness accentuates its regional allies’ loss of confidence in expanded deterrence. Under these conditions, there is a real risk that North Korean launches will generate a dynamic of regional nuclear proliferation.

Finally, a third explanation is that, beyond a show of force against President Joe Biden and his allies – first of all, South Korea – these missile launches appear to be a means of diverting the North Korean population’s attention from the growing internal difficulties and, specifically, food shortages. The country’s pre-pandemic scenario was already extremely delicate, with 40% of its population – around 10.5 million people – suffering from malnutrition and 70% of the country depending on food aid, according to a United Nations report. Now, with the huge increase in food shortages caused by the lack of Chinese imports the condition of North Korean citizens is increasingly precarious. From the government they state that the food crisis is mostly due to the economic and commercial sanctions imposed by the United States and the United Nations and due to the natural disasters that impact the country every year (floods, typhons); added to the severe health and financial crisis that has hit the world since 2020. Based on this explanation, the north Korean regime wouldn’t be so interested in starting denuclearisation negotiations again, but rather in continuing with its military build-up for itsfive-year plan to develop its defence technology and military system and for reinforcing Kim’s legitimacy in front of the NK people.

Regardless of which explanation is more accurate, the fact is that analysts firmly believe that north Korea will probably continue undertaking missile tests and holding military parades. The regime wants to remain a popular international actor and to have US attention amid escalating tensions in other parts of the globe. Moreover, it is the right time for Kim to increase his internal popularity.