North Korea's missile tests were more than they seemed

After a lengthy period of not doing anything terribly provocative, North Korea has “test-fired” at least three and possibly as many as five missiles in the past couple of weeks. Considering how often this used to happen before Donald Trump’s efforts a negotiating with dictator Kim Jong-un, most analysts who study activities on the Korean peninsula weren’t terribly surprised. But the timing of these launches clearly wasn’t a coincidence, either. Now that there has been time to examine all of the data, it’s becoming clear that Kim was demonstrating not only his resolve in retaining his country’s status as a nuclear power but that he wanted to send a very specific message to an audience composed of one person… Joe Biden. And the message is that his weapons technology is still improving. When Biden offered public comments about the reckless nature of North Korea’s actions, Kim quickly fired back, blaming the new American president for the destabilization of the region.

North Korea on Saturday snapped back at President Joe Biden’s criticism of its ballistic missile tests, calling his comments a provocation and encroachment on the North’s right to self-defense and vowing to continuously expand its “most thoroughgoing and overwhelming military power.”

The statement issued by senior official Ri Pyong Chol came after the North on Thursday tested-fired two short-range missiles off its eastern coast in the first ballistic launches since Biden took office.

The irony of Kim Jong-un calling Joe Biden’s words “a provocation” after he just finished putting two ICBMs into the Sea of Japan shouldn’t be lost on anyone. But the underlying message was clear. Those rockets are reportedly part of North Korea’s latest generation of ballistic missiles. They run on solid fuel rather than liquid, giving them greater range and making them easier to keep mobile. Also, these missiles have in-flight steering capability, allowing them to more easily evade anti-missile defense systems. The larger versions are expected to have a range sufficient to reach significant parts of the United States and could be capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

One analyst for the Associated Press published an “explainer” of the signals that Kim is sending to Biden and what the North’s expectations are in the short term. According to this theory, the missiles Kim has put up thus far have been fairly short range compared to North Korea’s largest and most advanced hardware, and that fact sends a signal. The message is that “Washington has a window of engagement before North Korea pursues bigger provocations.” But it’s equally clear that Kim would like Biden to make the first move and do so publicly. Pyongyang already released a message last week claiming that the Biden administration had made several attempts to reach out to them through back channels, but those efforts had been rebuffed.

A recent analysis from NBC News carries a similar theory, claiming that the last launch wasn’t just “a test.”

Last week North Korea labeled Biden’s approach a “cheap trick,” saying it won’t talk until the U.S. abandons its “hostile” policy.

But North Korea does need to talk, many experts agree. The cocktail of Covid-19, widespread flooding and international sanctions have battered the country — already isolated and largely impoverished — shrinking its economy and causing widespread food shortages.

Kim “needs to get some sort of dialogue going with the Americans that will lead to some form of sanctions relief,” John Nilsson-Wright, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, a London think tank, said.

Despite some of these descriptions, Kim Jong-un isn’t being particularly subtle here and neither is Joe Biden, at least in public. Kim wants relief from sanctions so he can get his economy moving again. But Joe Biden has yet to show any inclination toward lifting sanctions (thankfully) unless Kim agrees to begin dismantling some of his nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, allowing international inspectors into those sites to verify the progress. Biden’s position is essentially the exact same approach that Trump took, only with fewer love letters and more bombast. There is no reason to trust Kim Jong-un in terms of any deals he offers because his family has broken so many other deals in the past. Hopefully Biden will stick to his guns (figuratively) and keep applying pressure on North Korea, even if the effort remains likely to fail.