Missile tests don't alter core US-North Korea dynamic

Missile tests don't alter core US-North Korea dynamic
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North Korea’s recent missile and rocket tests have revived questions about the viability of the Trump administration’s nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang. But the type of systems tested, and the low-key U.S. response, suggest that these recent provocations fit within the pattern of dialogue. The underlying issue is not the North’s missile tests, but the question of whether the two sides are working toward a common goal.

North Korea carried out tests of two short-range ballistic missiles on July 25. They were initially believed by U.S. and South Korean military and civilian analysts to be variants of Russia’s Iskandar missiles. The North has tested variants of this road mobile short-range missile system before.

While any ballistic missile test may be seen as a violation of United Nations resolutions, short range systems do not violate the assurances North Korean leader Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnBeware the 34th month of Trump's presidency The Trump doctrine: Principled realism or endemic confusion? Stockholm breakdown reflects North Korea's failure to compromise MORE reportedly gave U.S. President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? MORE, when he committed to refrain from longer-range tests that could reach U.S. territories.

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North Korean media noted that the July 25th tests were a signal to South Korea, criticizing Seoul for bringing new weapons systems into the country (a likely reference to South Korea’s F35 purchase) and upcoming military exercises with the United States. The lower altitude flight of the North Korean missiles, coupled with demonstrations of maneuverability in the final flight phase, highlight the potential value of these systems to target air bases in South Korea, potentially countering missile defense systems. North Korea’s air force has little to counter the South’s advanced fighters in the air, but Pyongyang has showcased its potential ability to strike them even before they get off the ground.

Less than a week after the missile tests, North Korea carried out another live fire exercise, one that Seoul initially labeled as more ballistic missiles, but which Pyongyang has said were advanced rocket systems. Images from North Korean media showed a tracked vehicle hosting six rocket tubes, suggesting the North has purchased or developed a larger diameter multiple rocket launch system (MRLS). MRLS systems are a key component of North Korea’s coastal defense capabilities, as well as mobile systems for battlefield use. A different MRLS system was used in the 2010 shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island.

Both tests should be seen in two lights: as political and military signaling, and as part of North Korea’s natural progress in national self-defense. Regarding the latter – nuclear talks with the United States notwithstanding – North Korea has significant national self-defense concerns, and with a highly constrained budget, faces off against the largest single military power on the planet. Pyongyang cannot expect to meet U.S. or even South Korean capabilities in all systems. Instead, it focuses on ways to cost effectively counter the imbalance of power, relying on missiles and rockets, cyber activities, robust air defense, submarines and of course, its nuclear deterrent.

On the signaling front, the North is walking a fine line between highlighting its strength and keeping within the limits of its tacit agreement with the United States. The U.S. administration thus far appears to accept that these latest tests do not violate Kim’s promise, and thus do not undermine the potential for continued talks with the north. At the same time, Pyongyang can message to South Korea that the United States may not be willing to risk its own security just to protect the South.

The suggestion is that the North Korean missile and rocket tests do present a real security issue for Seoul, but Washington downplays their significance because they cannot reach U.S. territories. There is a similar message for Japan (which has taken the brunt of North Korean media criticism in recent weeks). In short, the North is seeking to exploit the growing strains in the trilateral U.S.-South Korea-Japan alliance relations.

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For the U.S. administration, North Korea is rapidly becoming an old troubling issue that interferes with the U.S. refocus on great power competition. Easing the perception of threat from North Korea could allow the United States to reassess its large defense force in South Korea, potentially redeploying some of that force to better counter China.

Removing North Korea’s nuclear capability would be ideal. But the reality is that the North is unlikely to give up what it already possesses. This, more than the occasional test of short-range missiles, is the complicating factor of the negotiations. North Korea has been clear that it views denuclearization as a two-way street—including the removal of the U.S. Nuclear umbrella from South Korea. Pyongyang also wants a phased approach; small steps by the North in return for small steps in sanctions reductions by the United States.

The trust deficit is just too big to bridge in a single negotiated settlement. North Korea does not trust U.S. security guarantees, and the U.S. doesn’t trust North Korea’s promises. Both point to historical examples to back up their concerns. Both want a settlement of some sort—the U.S. to allow a refocus of its military assets as well as a victory for the administration, and the North to break out of its isolationist box without having to give up its political system. A missile test here and there does little to alter this core dynamic.

Rodger Baker is senior vice president of strategic analysis at Stratfor. He is one of the world's leading experts on North Korea and has dedicated extended periods of time living and working in and around the Korean peninsula.