[News analysis] Kim Jong-un’s ICBM targets Biden’s indifference toward N. Korea

Posted on : 2022-03-28 17:08 KST Modified on : 2022-03-28 17:11 KST
Now that North Korea has crossed a redline by test-launching an ICBM, the prevailing attitude is that it’s likely to move ahead with an even more explosive provocation in the future
The Rodong Sinmun reported on North Korea’s launch of an ICBM on pages 1-4 on March 25, accompanied by 16 photos. (KCNA/Yonhap News)
The Rodong Sinmun reported on North Korea’s launch of an ICBM on pages 1-4 on March 25, accompanied by 16 photos. (KCNA/Yonhap News)

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un personally signed the order for the test launch of the Hwasong-17, the North’s newest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and was present for the test, the party-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported on Friday. The last time Kim had signed missile launch orders was the launch of the Hwasong-15, on Nov. 29, 2017.

The newspaper quoted Kim as saying that “the emergence of the new strategic weapon of the DPRK would make the whole world clearly aware of the power of our strategic armed forces once again.” Kim added that “our national defence forces would possess formidable military and technical capabilities unperturbed by any military threat and blackmail and keep themselves fully ready for long-standing confrontation with the US imperialists.”

According to the signed order released by the Rodong Sinmun, Kim wrote the following message on a progress report stating that all preparations had been made for test-launching the Hwasong-17, the ICBM prepared by the Munitions Industry Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK): “I authorize the test launch. The launch will take place on Mar. 24. Launch the missile courageously for the great dignity and honor of the fatherland and the Korean people!”

Unwilling to wait any longer for a response from the US, North Korea has decided to prepare for a “long-standing confrontation”

There is much food for thought in the Rodong Sinmun report, which said that Kim had “personally guided” the Hwasong-17 test launch on Thursday after signing the launch order.

Korean and American experts had predicted that Pyongyang was very likely to launch a long-range missile camouflaged as a reconnaissance satellite around the 110th anniversary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung on April 15, a date celebrated in the North as the Day of the Sun. But Kim’s action both came faster and was more extreme than they had predicted.

Additionally, this ICBM test launch came 1,577 days — that is, four years, three months and 23 days — after the North announced the completion of its nuclear arsenal along with a test launch of the Hwasong-15 on Nov. 29, 2017.

Kim’s decision to take this strategic military action after so long without waiting for the Day of the Sun or bothering to disguise it as a launch vehicle for a reconnaissance satellite would seem to suggest that he has made the strategic decision not to wait any longer for “corresponding measures” from the US under President Joe Biden.

Kim had already signaled that he would be nullifying North Korea’s moratorium on nuclear weapon tests and ICBM test launches during the sixth meeting of the Eighth Politburo of the WPK Central Committee on Jan. 19. That was when he said the “policy of hostility” of the US and its military threat had reached a point that could no longer be ignored and instructed officials to reconsider all confidence-building measures with the US and explore quickly resuming all activities that had been temporarily suspended.

But Biden didn’t make a single mention of North Korea in his State of the Union address to Congress on March 1. He has dedicated the US’ diplomatic resources to the troop pullout from Afghanistan and its aftermath, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and efforts to reinstate the Iran nuclear deal. But he hasn’t taken any actions on North Korea beyond offering diplomatic rhetoric about the door to dialogue being open.

What that means is that Biden doesn’t consider North Korea a top priority. Pyongyang appears to have concluded that, for the time being at least, it cannot expect proactive negotiations from the US, let alone sanctions relief.

“We have to conclude that Kim Jong-un’s decision to launch an ICBM was largely influenced by the Biden administration’s disinterest in North Korea — its penchant for passively managing the situation rather than dedicating diplomatic resources to resolving the issues between the two countries,” a veteran in the areas of unification, foreign policy and national security told the Hankyoreh on Friday.

Little chance of more UN Security Council sanctions while the US and Russia are at loggerheads over Ukraine

A second factor that appears to have motivated North Korea is the low probability of the UN Security Council responding effectively to an ICBM launch given the adversarial relationships the US has with both China and Russia amid its hegemonic and strategic rivalry with China and its head-on confrontation with Russia over the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The tense relations between these three permanent members of the Security Council make it unlikely that the public meeting held Friday will lead to a quick agreement on additional effective sanctions against North Korea.

The last time the Security Council convened a public meeting about a North Korean nuclear weapon test or ICBM test launch was 1,555 days (four years, three months and three days) ago, on Dec. 22, 2017, when it adopted Security Council Resolution 2397, which imposed additional sanctions on the North for its launch of the Hwasong-15.

“The conflict between the US, China and Russia has left the UN Security Council basically unable to function, a situation about which Kim Jong-un is hardly ignorant,” said a former high-ranking official in the South Korean government.

Sue Mi Terry, director of the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Wilson Center, argued in an article published on March 24 in Foreign Affairs called “North Korea’s Nuclear Opportunism: Why Kim Jong Un Chose to Exploit the Ukraine Crisis” that the North’s ICBM test launch was aimed at taking advantage of the handover of power in South Korea in addition to the US and other major countries’ preoccupation with the war in Ukraine to expand its nuclear arsenal. According to Terry, China and Russia won’t allow the Security Council to impose more sanctions on North Korea given their conflict with the US over the war in Ukraine.

North Korea also aims to restore trilateral cooperation with China and Russia

Third, Kim could see the strategic triangle between the US, China, and Russia — which includes the US and China’s hegemonic and strategic competition, the confrontation between the US and Russia, and cooperation between China and Russia — as a strategic opportunity to restore trilateral cooperation with China and Russia and to gain more room to maneuver in foreign affairs. It’s highly significant that North Korea voted against both resolutions at the UN General Assembly (on March 1 and March 24) that condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, even though the North has long held autonomy and sovereignty as being sacred and absolute values.

A vote against the resolutions was a far more pro-Russian move than China’s abstention from both resolutions. Trilateral cooperation with China and Russia helped prop up the North Korean economy and national security during the Cold War.

Kim’s decision to carry out the Hwasong-17 test launch and nullify the moratorium while Biden was touring Europe in an attempt to reinforce the encirclement of Russia and toughen sanctions against will almost certainly force Biden’s hand. If the Biden administration is compelled to divert even a fraction of the diplomatic resources it would otherwise deploy in its two-front conflict with China and Russia, the test launch would have the effect of aiding China and Russia.

In short, there’s a good chance that Kim concluded that test-launching the Hwasong-17 ICBM now, while the conflict between the US, China and Russia is intensifying, could serve to stir the Biden administration out of its apparent apathy toward the North, provide support to China and Russia, and prevent or delay additional tough sanctions from the Security Council.

Will one redline be enough for Pyongyang?

Now that North Korea has crossed a redline by test-launching an ICBM, the prevailing attitude is that it’s likely to move ahead with an even more explosive provocation in the future. That would likely happen in April, which will be chaotic not only because of the Day of the Sun and the South Korea-US military exercises scheduled for that month but also because of the upcoming handover of power to president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol in South Korea.

But some analysts argue that North Korea is still keeping its options open since it didn’t send its ICBM into Japanese airspace.

Christopher Green, a senior consultant on Korean issues for the International Crisis Group, told the Wall Street Journal that while this missile “flew higher and longer” than previous ones, it is “certainly no game-changer” because it didn’t fly over Japan.

“That is a fact North Korea is clearly aware of,” Green said.

“South Korea and American intelligence agencies are closely analyzing the claim that this missile is the new Hwasong-17 that North Korea made in public reports this morning while bearing in mind several possibilities,” an official from the South Korean military told reporters on Friday. The official declined to respond further when reporters asked if intelligence agencies believe the missile was not in fact the Hwasong-17.

Military and intelligence agencies are reportedly carrying out additional analysis into the possibility that North Korea had actually launched its standard Hwasong-15 ICBM and then made public previously unreleased photos that had been taken during earlier performance tests of the Hwasong-17.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer; Jung E-gil, senior staff writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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